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The Last Gunfighter Winter Kill
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrank Morgan dropped to one knee and fired twice. Muzzle flame spurted from the thick shadows in the alley across the street, and Frank felt the windrip of a bullet going past his head. He triggered again, aiming just above the muzzle flash he had seen, and this time he was rewarded by a yell of pain.
The bushwhacker in the alley wasn't the only one yelling. The street had been rather crowded when the shooting started, and men shouted curses and questions as they tried to scurry out of the line of fire.
Frank lunged to his feet and darted behind a parked wagon. He crouched low and took off his high-crowned hat so that he could risk a look past the end of the wagon's sideboards. A man stumbled out of the alley, gun in hand. His other hand was pressed to his belly, where Frank's slug must have caught him.
"Damn you!" he screamed. "You've killed me!"
The man jerked his gun up and fired again. Frank drew a bead and put a bullet through the bushwhacker's head, knocking him off his feet. Gut-shot like that, the varmint might have lived long enough to empty his revolver, and innocent folks might get hit by the stray bullets flying around. Frank didn't want that. The citizens of Seattle, and visitors to the town, had already been endangered enough by thisfracas.
Frank stepped out from behind the wagon and clapped his hat back on his head. He still had one round left in the Colt. He kept the gun trained on the fallen man as he approached. Light spilling through the open doors and windows of buildings along the street showed him that the bushwhacker wasn't moving, but Frank hadn't survived all those long, dangerous years on the frontier by taking unnecessary chances.
Frank Morgan was a gunfighter. He was known as The Drifter, because ever since leaving his home in Texas not long after the Civil War, he had never stayed in one place for very long. A little more than three decades had passed since then, and he was still as fiddle-footed as ever.
He had to be. Every time he attempted to settle down, somebody tried to kill him. That was part and parcel of the reputation he had as maybe the fastest gun alive. Of all the famous gunfighters who had lived in the West during its wild and woolly days-Smoke and Matt Jensen, John Wesley Hardin, Matt Bodine, Ben Thompson, Falcon McAllister-Frank Morgan was the last one who hadn't either crossed the divide or hung up his guns. The only shootist remaining in his league was the mysterious Kid Morgan, who had taken to roaming the Southwest in recent months. People might have remarked on the two of them having the same last name and wondered if they were related, but nobody knew for sure.
No one but a handful of people were aware that Kid Morgan was really Conrad Browning, Frank's son.
Frank was a long way from The Kid's stomping ground at the moment. Seattle, Washington, to be precise. He had no real reason for being here, but everybody had to be somewhere. He had drifted up the coast from San Francisco, living up to the nickname that had been given to him many years earlier.
Now he stood over yet another hombre he had shot, the latest in a long line of men who had fallen to The Drifter's gun. Frank saw the neat black hole in the man's forehead, just above the right eye, and knew that he wasn't a threat anymore. Taking cartridges from the loops on his shell belt, Frank began thumbing them into the Colt's cylinder to replace the rounds he had fired.
"You killed that fella, mister," one of the bystanders said as they began to crowd curiously around Frank and the corpse.
"Seemed like the thing to do at the time," Frank said. Even after all these years, his voice still held a trace of a Texas drawl.
Another man spoke up. "Yeah, he fired at you first. I saw the whole thing. Self-defense, sure as hell."
"You know him, mister?" the first man asked. "He have a grudge against you?"
"Must have," Frank said, "but I don't know him." He snapped the revolver's cylinder closed. "I never saw this hombre in my life until just now."
A burly, blue-uniformed policeman shouldered his way through the crowd. "All right, all right, step aside," he ordered. "What the devil's goin' on-"
He stopped short as he caught sight of the Colt in Frank's hand and the dead man at his feet. Reaching for his own pistol, he went on excitedly. "Drop that gun, mister!"
"You don't drop guns," Frank said. "That can damage them, or make them go off." He pouched the iron. "But I'll put it away while we talk, friend."
The policeman glared at him. "I ain't your friend. What the hell happened here?"
The man who claimed to have witnessed the shooting said, "I saw the whole thing. That fella"-he pointed toward the dead man-"ambushed this other fella. He shot at him from the alley. And all he got for his trouble was a bullet in the gut and one in the head."
The policeman looked around at the crowd. "Anybody else see anything? Is that what happened?"
Several other men spoke up, agreeing with the first witness. The policeman turned back to Frank and said, "I guess maybe you didn't do anything wrong after all, mister. But you'll still have to sign a statement and give testimony at the inquest."
Frank shrugged. "Fine by me."
"And we'll need to know why this man tried to kill you," the policeman added.
"Now, there, you're out of luck," Frank said. "I don't have any earthly idea."
The policeman frowned again. "A man tries to shoot you, and you don't have any idea why?"
"I suppose this happens to you all the time," the policeman said with a snort.
"More than you'd think," Frank said with a note of dry humor in his voice. "And more than I'd like."
The policeman stared at Frank, obviously confused, until one of the bystanders said abruptly, "Hey, I recognize that fella. He's Frank Morgan!"
That caused a stir in the crowd. "The gunfighter?" one man asked, while another added, "The one they wrote all those dime novels about?"
Those dime novels were one of the banes of Frank's existence. The gaudy, yellow-backed, luridly overwritten stories wildly exaggerated a reputation that didn't need any exaggeration. Judging by them, Frank had killed more men than all the other infamous shootists put together. That just made even more would-be fast guns eager to test their speed against him. Sometimes he was able to just wound them, but mostly he had to kill the young, stupid firebrands.
"Are you him?" the policeman demanded. "Are you the notorious gunfighter Frank Morgan? The one they call The Drifter?"
Frank didn't see any point in denying it. He nodded wearily and said, "That's right."
The policeman gestured toward the corpse. "Then this fella probably just wanted to be known as the man who killed Frank Morgan. He didn't care that he had to do it from a dark alley."
That theory was probably correct. Similar things happened all too often.
"I'll have the undertaker fetch the body and then I'll file a report. Where are you stayin', Mr. Morgan?"
"I don't have a hotel room yet," Frank replied with a shake of his head. "I just rode in and found a stable for my horses." He had left Stormy and Goldy down the street at Jessup's Livery, along with Dog, the big, wolflike cur who was also one of Frank's trail partners.
"Well, when you get settled in, let headquarters know where to find you. Somebody'll be in touch with you about the inquest."
The policeman's tone had turned to one of mingled respect and wariness. Lawmen across the West knew about Frank Morgan's reputation. Most of them didn't like him because in their opinion he brought violence and danger to their communities. Many considered him a cold-blooded hired killer like the infamous Jim Miller, although that was the farthest thing from the truth. They never stopped to think about the fact that Frank had worn a lawman's badge himself on several occasions, and he had never killed anyone except in self-defense or the defense of someone else.
Politely, he agreed to do as the policeman said. With that, the blue-uniformed officer turned to the crowd and bellowed, "All right, break it up, break it up! There's nothing to see here!"
"Nothing but a dead body and a famous gunfighter," one of the men in the crowd pointed out. That just made the policeman's already florid face flush even darker with anger.
Chuckling grimly, Frank turned and started making his way along the street. The bystanders got out of his way. He spotted a decent-looking hotel down the street and headed for it. MAJESTIC HOTEL, the sign over the door read. The place didn't appear to be all that majestic, but it looked clean and well kept up.
Frank hadn't gone very far when he became aware of a man falling in step beside him. A glance over in that direction revealed a tall, lean man with a lantern-jawed face and steel-gray hair that hung down over his collar. He wore a flat-crowned hat and a long coat. His features had a hard cast, as if he was a man accustomed to trouble. He grinned, though, as The Drifter looked at him, making his face a lot friendlier.
"Howdy, Frank," he said.
Frank stopped short. "Jacob?" he asked. "Jacob Trench?"
"That's right. How long's it been? Ten years?"
"At least that." Frank stuck out his hand. "It's good to see you again." The men shook hands for a moment, then Frank went on. "The hell with that." He pulled Trench into a rough hug, pounding the man on the back as he did so. Trench returned the boisterous greeting.
"What are you doing in Seattle?" Trench asked.
"Same as always. Drifting."
"I thought maybe you were headed up to Alaska to get in on the gold rush. That's why the town is so crowded. Lots of prospectors outfit here before they sail north."
Frank shook his head. "I'm not interested in hunting for gold."
He didn't need to. Thanks to the vast, varied, and highly lucrative business interests he had inherited from Vivian Browning, his first love and his son Conrad's mother, Frank Morgan was one of the richest men west of the Mississippi, though an observer would never know that from his broken-in boots, well-worn jeans, faded blue work shirt, and time- and weather-stained hat. His gun and holster-the tools of his trade, so to speak-were well cared for, but there was nothing fancy about them, either.
"Same as always, all right," Trench said with a laugh. "You're one of the most unambitious men I've ever met, Frank. I think that's one reason I like you. You don't ever try to horn in on a man's plans."
"You have plans, Jacob?" Frank asked. The last time he had seen Trench, ten years or more in the past, the man had been running a freight line down in New Mexico Territory. Frank had helped him deal with some outlaws who had been plaguing the line.
"I always have plans. I'm headed up to Alaska myself."
Trench shook his head. "I've got another sort of bonanza in mind, if you're interested."
Frank held up a hand to stop him. "Nope. Whatever it is, I want no part of it. Shoot, Jacob, I'm from Texas. I can't take the cold up there in that country. It's all snow and ice, from what I hear."
"Not just yet," Trench said. "Winter hasn't set in yet. There are a few weeks left before the weather turns bad. That's what I'm counting on, anyway. I'll be in Skagway before the snow starts to fall."
"I hope so." They had reached the hotel. Frank stopped in front of it. "Well, good luck to you, whatever this venture of yours is. It's mighty good to see you again-"
"Wait a minute, Frank," Trench said, interrupting. His smile vanished and was replaced by a serious expression. "Come across the street and have a drink with me." He jerked a thumb toward the Cascade Saloon.
"I don't know ... I've been in the saddle most of the day, and I was looking forward to a hot meal and then a good night's sleep."
"Before somebody threw down on you from that alley, you mean."
A frown creased Frank's forehead. "You saw that, did you?"
"Yeah, I saw it. I did more than that." Trench took a deep breath. "I caused it."
"What in blazes are you talking about?"
"That bastard wasn't shooting at you, Frank," Trench said. "He was shooting at me."
Chapter TwoTrench's angular face appeared to be completely serious. Frank was intrigued enough by his old friend's claim that after a moment he nodded and said, "All right. I reckon we can have that drink."
"Good. I feel mighty guilty about you almost getting ventilated because of me. Seems like buying you a drink is the least I can do to settle the score."
"That and tell me why somebody wants to kill you," Frank said as they started across the street toward the Cascade. Some of the men they passed must have recognized Frank as being involved in the shooting from a few minutes earlier. He saw the looks they cast in his direction and heard the whispers, but he was able to ignore them.
He'd had plenty of practice.
The Cascade Saloon was a good-sized establishment doing a brisk business. It was noisy enough inside, what with the tinny notes of a piano, the clicking of a roulette wheel, and the bawdy laughter and raucous talk of the customers and the girls who worked there, that Frank was confident nobody would be able to eavesdrop on him and Trench as they sat down at a table in the corner with a couple of beers.
Frank wasn't much of a drinker, but he liked a cold beer now and then. The beer in the Cascade was icy and went down smoothly. After a healthy swallow, Frank set his mug on the table and said, "All right, Jacob. Let's hear it."
Trench took another drink from his mug, then thumbed his hat back on his thinning hair. Like Frank, he was well advanced into middle age, but still a vital, powerful man.
"I was walking along the other side of the street from you," he began, "although I didn't know it at the time. Just as I passed that alley, I heard a little noise, and I reckon I was jumpy enough that it made me duck. That's when the fella who was lurking there pulled the trigger. The bullet came mighty close to parting my hair anyway, but it missed and went on across the street."
"Where it went right past my ear and busted out a window in the building I was passing," Frank said. The moment was still vivid in his mind.
"Yep. That's about the size of it," Trench agreed.
"Question is, if he was trying to kill you, why did he keep shooting at me?"
"Because you were shooting at him," Trench said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
And it was, Frank supposed. When he had felt the hot breath of that bullet, his instincts had taken over, making him whirl toward the source of the shot, drop to a knee, and return fire. Once things had gone that far, the man in the alley had kept shooting to try to save his own life. Frank could see now that that was the way it must have been.
He took another sip of his beer. "All right, that explains part of it," he said. "Where were you while the rest of it was going on?"
"I got the hell out of the line of fire, of course. Once Haggarty opened the ball and you accepted his invitation to dance, there was nothing I could do to stop it." Frank grunted. "You knew the fella, then?"
"Damn right. His name was Leon Haggarty. Mean as hell."
"Had a grudge against you, did he?" Frank guessed.
Trench shrugged. "Yeah. He and his brothers think I killed a cousin of theirs over in Idaho a while back."
Frank's eyebrows rose. "Brothers?" he repeated.
Trench rubbed a hand over his jaw and grimaced. "Yeah."
"How many brothers are there?"
"They as mean as Leon?"
"Meaner," Trench admitted with a sheepish grin.
Frank shook his head. Despite his reputation, he had the most peaceful intentions in the world, especially now that he was getting on in years, and yet he still managed to walk right into trouble, usually through no fault of his own, again and again.
Both men drank from their mugs, then Trench went on. "It wasn't until after you'd plugged Leon that I got a good look at you and realized who you were. I didn't know my old compadre Frank Morgan was anywhere close to Seattle."
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter Winter Kill by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2010 by William W. Johnstone . Excerpted by permission.
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