From two of America's bestselling western writers comes a heart-racing story of frontier justice, pioneer spirit, and one town's last-chance miracle. . .
Three weeks before Christmas, the little town of Chug Water in Wyoming Territory is stunned by a brutal crime. The mayor's family has been slaughtered in cold blood on their ranch outside of Raw Hide Butte. As the townsfolk gather to pay their last respects, Duff MacCallister saddles up to go after the killers. He returns with two outlaws--a cold-blooded, nasty pair of snakes, Jesse and T. Bob Cave. But the day before they're sentenced to hang, the Cave brothers escape their fate. . .
Into this holiday hell-storm ride three friendly travelers. Smoke, Sally and Matt Jensen, come to spend Christmas with Duff. But a deadly diphtheria outbreak leaves the town beholden to the mercy of the Cave brothers. It's a desperate bind to be stuck in, but Duff and the Jensens will use every bullet they can find to shoot their way into a bloody but merry Christmas.
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About the Author
Being the all-around assistant, typist, researcher, and fact checker to one of the most popular western authors of all time, J.A. Johnstone learned from the master, Uncle William W. Johnstone.
He began tutoring J.A. at an early age. After-school hours were often spent retyping manuscripts or researching his massive American Western history library as well as the more modern wars and conflicts. J.A. worked hard—and learned.
"Every day with Bill was an adventure story in itself. Bill taught me all he could about the art of storytelling. ‘Keep the historical facts accurate,' he would say. ‘Remember the readers, and as your grandfather once told me, I am telling you now: be the best J.A. Johnstone you can be.'"
Read an Excerpt
A Frontier Christmas
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Ralph Walters stood on the depot platform, waiting for the train. He had a long trip in front of him—to Cheyenne by rail, then by stagecoach up to Rawhide Buttes, Wyoming. He was a traveling troubadour, someone who could play the guitar, banjo, fiddle, harmonica, and drum. In one of his acts, he would pass himself off as a one-man band, and play the banjo, harmonica, and drum all at the same time. He was also a skilled magician.
Because entertainment was rare and much appreciated, especially in the small towns, he did a good business.
He was going to Rawhide Buttes to perform for a firemen's benefit show, and for the students in the Rawhide School. Schools didn't pay as much as some of the more adult venues, but he could almost always schedule a school in conjunction with his adult show, and that's what he had done in Rawhide Buttes.
He'd skipped breakfast and lunch because he wasn't hungry. It was probably a pretty good thing that he still wasn't very hungry. He had awakened with a sore throat and wasn't sure he would be able to swallow, anyway. Reaching up, he wrapped his hand around his throat and thought he felt some swelling there.
"Here she comes!" somebody shouted, and several people moved closer to the track.
Walters remained in place as the big engine came roaring into the station with steam gushing from the drive cylinders and glowing coals dripping from the firebox. The engineer was leaning on the windowsill of the cab, his jutting chin and hooked nose looking as if they were about to join. Brakes were applied, and the train came to a halt. It sat there with wisps of steam wreathing the drive wheels, the journals and gearboxes popping and snapping as they cooled.
"Board!" the conductor shouted.
Those who were about to make the trip rushed to climb onto the train.
This was old hat to Walters, who had made hundreds of trips on trains as he went from town to town.
The conductor recognized him, and smiled. "Hello, Mr. Walters, riding with us again, I see."
"Yes, but only as far as Cheyenne. There I must take a coach."
"Welcome aboard. I see that your regular seat hasn't been taken."
"Good, thank you." Walters moved down the aisle to the last seat on the left.
With a series of starts and jerks, the train resumed its journey a moment later.
Walters leaned his head back against the seat. He believed he might also be getting a fever.
Sugarloaf Ranch, Colorado
When Smoke Jensen came back from town he had a letter from his friend Duff MacCallister. "Sally, I heard from Duff." Smoke reached for a hot bear claw.
"Don't eat more than one. I'm doing this for the boys in the bunkhouse. What does Duff have to say?"
"I don't know I haven't opened it yet. I thought we would read it together."
Sally smiled. "That was nice of you." She put another tray of dough puffs into the oven.
"How many of those things are you making?"
"We have eight hands spending the entire winter with us, and you know very well that Cal and Pearlie could eat this entire tray by themselves."
Smoke chuckled. "I guess you're right." He opened the envelope and began to read, silently.
"Well, what does he say?"
"He has invited us to come to Chugwater to spend Christmas with him."
"Christmas in Chugwater? That's very nice of him. I wonder why he invited us, though. You would think he would have invited someone like Falcon, or one of the other MacCallisters."
Smoke nodded in agreement. "But he not only invited us, he invited Matt, too, since he's here to spend the holidays with us."
"Well, be gentle when you turn Duff down. The poor man is so far away from his ancestral home, I'm sure that Christmas is a difficult time for him."
Smoke's eyebrows rose. "Why would I turn him down? I'm the one who hinted that we would be receptive to an invitation in the first place."
"What? Smoke, I thought we were going to New York for Christmas."
"Whatever gave you that idea?"
Sally frowned. "Didn't we make that decision this past summer?"
"You said it had been a long time since you were in New York, and you'd like to go back for a visit sometime. That's not making a decision, that's talking about it. Besides, Matt and I have to be at Fort Russell, Wyoming, in December to sell our horses, so it just seems natural that, since we are going to be up there, anyway, that we drop in on Duff."
"And didn't you just say that you thought Christmas might be a difficult time for him? Where is your compassion?"
Sally laughed. "I hate it when we are arguing and you use my own words on me."
"Were we just arguing?"
"Of a sort, I suppose."
Smoke smiled then reached for her. "Good. The best part of arguing is making up," he said, pulling her to him.
Big Rock, Colorado
At the moment, Matt Jensen was in Longmont's Saloon, watching a three-card game that Louis Longmont was playing with a traveling gambler named Sherman who had not given a first name.
He had been having an inordinate run of luck since he came to town, so much luck that Longmont was convinced Sherman was helping his odds with a little card manipulation.
Sherman didn't know that Longmont wasn't just a saloon owner. He was also an exceptionally skilled gambler. Practically a magician with cards.
The game they were playing was a simple game, not too unlike the game of finding the pea under the shell. In this case, Sherman had to find the ace after watching Longmont shift the cards around in front of him. Sherman had tried his luck three times, and every time he had lost.
Another patron engaged the saloon owner in conversation. It wasn't idle conversation. It was a setup. The patron was a secret partner, sometimes letting Sherman know by coded signals what cards the mark was holding. In this case, his only purpose was to divert Longmont's attention.
With his opponent's attention shifted, Sherman reached across the table and put a small, barely noticeable, crease on one corner of the ace. Longmont could switch the cards around any way he wanted. Sherman wouldn't even attempt to follow him. He would simply select the card with the creased corner.
"You going to play cards, or are you going to talk all day?" Sherman asked.
Longmont turned back to the table. "Why, I'm going to play cards, Mr. Sherman," Longmont said, smiling easily.
"Only, this time, let's bet some real money," Sherman suggested. He put ten twenty-dollar gold pieces on the table.
"That's a pretty steep bet for a little friendly game like this, isn't it?"
"You own the saloon. Surely you can afford it."
Longmont smiled. "Oh, I can afford it."
As he put his own money on the table matching the bet, Sherman took one last look at the creased card. So far, Longmont hadn't noticed it. How could he? It was so subtle a crease that it was barely discernible, even to Sherman, and he was the one who put it there.
Longmont picked up the three cards and began shuffling them around. Sherman looked over at his partner and nodded. Longmont put the cards down on the table, then began moving them around, in and out, over and under with such lightning speed that the cards were nearly a blur. When he stopped, the three cards lay in front of him, waiting for Sherman to pick the ace.
Smiling confidently, Sherman reached across the table to make his selection ... then suddenly froze in mid-motion. The smile left his face. His hand hung suspended over the table as he stared at the three cards with a sickly expression on his face.
"Hard to pick out the ace when they all look alike, isn't it, mon ami?" Longmont asked.
"Yeah," Sherman said with a weak response. He had been had. Somehow Longmont had not only picked up on the card with the tiny crease, he had duplicated that crease on the other two cards, doing it so perfectly that Sherman had no idea which was the one he had marked.
"Are you going to pick a card or not?"
Sherman turned up a card. It was a queen. "Damn!"
"Maybe this isn't your game," Longmont suggested as he pulled back the money from the center of the table.
"I don't believe the ace is even on the table."
"Oh, it's on the table, all right." Longmont reached for one of the cards.
"Wait a minute. I'll turn it over," Sherman said. "For all I know you have an ace palmed. You can make it appear anywhere you want."
"All right. You turn it over."
Sherman reached for the card Longmont had started for and flipped it over. It was the ace. "Damn," he said again.
"Actually, I can make an ace appear anywhere I want." Longmont picked up a new deck of cards, shuffled them, then spread them all out, facedown, on the table. "Here's the ace of diamonds," he said, turning it up. "The ace of clubs, the ace of hearts, and the ace of spades."
"What? How the hell did you do that?"
"Here are the four kings," Longmont added, pulling them from the spread-out deck. "Here are the queens, and here are the jacks."
"You have run into someone who was not only able to catch you, but is a hell of a lot better at it than you," Matt said.
The others gathered around the table to watch laughed.
"I tell you what, Mr. Sherman," Longmont said, sliding ten of the twenty-dollar gold pieces back across the table. "Take your money, but leave my saloon and don't come back. When my customers play cards in here, they have a right to expect an honest game."
Sherman stared at the money for a moment, then he reached for it. "A man has to make a living."
"Yes, and most of my customers do that by the sweat of their brow, not by sitting at a table, cheating others."
"And take your partner with you," Longmont added, looking at the man who had attempted to divert his attention earlier. "You can have one last drink, then both of you go."
"Thanks anyway, but we aren't thirsty." With a glance toward his partner, Sherman started toward the door.
"Oh, and Joyeux Noël," Longmont called as the two men left.CHAPTER 2
When Duff MacCallister rode into town, he was curious at the number of people gathered in the street in front of Fiddlers' Green Saloon. Dismounting, he tied off his horse Sky, then called out to Fred Matthews.
"What's going on, Fred? Why all the people?"
"There's a man standing in front of the apothecary, holding a gun to Damon White's head. He's demanding that a thousand dollars be brought to him within an hour, or he's goin' to kill our druggist."
"At the apothecary, you say?"
"Where is Marshal Craig?"
"He has gone to Cheyenne. He left Johnny Baldwin in charge."
Duff pulled his pistol and stepped out into the street.
"Duff, where are you going?"
"Well, we cannae be losing our druggist now, can we? And I'm afraid that Mr. Baldwin is too old to have to deal with something like this. I'll be going to talk to the gentlemen who's holding Mr. White. I'll be asking him, nicely, to abandon this project."
"With a gun in your hand?"
"Aye. 'Tis no secret, Fred, that I'm not one of those men who has the talent to quickly extract my firearm. If any shooting is to be done, I'd best have the gun in my hand before it starts."
"I would try and talk you out of it, but I can see that you have already made up your mind."
"Aye, 'tis something I feel I must do."
Holding his pistol down by his side, Duff started toward the apothecary at the far end of the street. As he got closer, he could hear the gunman shouting.
"Bring me the money! One thousand dollars! Bring me the money or this man dies! One thousand dollars!"
All the stores immediately around the apothecary had emptied. No one was on the street close to the gunman and Damon White.
"Bring me the money!" The gunman continued to shout from the wooden porch that extended from the front of the drugstore. He was about to shout something again, when he saw Duff walking toward him. "Who are you? What are you doing here?"
"The name is MacCallister, lad. Duff MacCallister. I'm here because 'tis needin' a bit of cough syrup I am, so I'd be grateful if you'd let the druggist go."
The gunman kept the gun pointed at White's head. "That'll cost you a thousand dollars."
"A thousand dollars, you say." Duff shook his head. "Och, isn't that a mite dear, for a wee bit of cough syrup?"
"No. I mean, I'm not going to let this man go until I get a thousand dollars."
"Who is it that you expect to give you a thousand dollars?"
"I don't care. Are you dumb? Can't you see I'm holding a gun to this man's head?"
"Aye, that I can see." Duff continued walking until he was at the bottom step.
"You've come far enough. Stop, right there, right now!" the gunman called down to Duff.
"I'll nae be doing that. I told you, 'tis a bit of cough syrup I'm needing."
"If you don't stop right where you are, I'm going to shoot this man."
Duff raised his pistol and pointed it straight at the gunman's head. He was so close that they were separated by less than ten feet. "If you shoot him, I'll shoot you."
"Don't you understand? I'm going to shoot him, if you don't drop that gun!"
"Oh, I'm nae goin' to drop the gun, lad. I'll be needing it, you see, so I can shoot you after you shoot Mr. White." Duff pulled the hammer back and the pistol made a deadly, double clicking sound as the sear was engaged.
For a long moment the two men stood there, a macabre tableau, Duff holding his pistol pointed directly at the gunman, while the gunman held his pistol to Damon White's head.
The gunman began to sweat, even though the weather was cold. The pupils of his eyes grew large.
"Tell me, lad, don't you think 'tis a bit cold out here?" Duff asked.
The gunman didn't reply.
"If you drop the gun, I can take you down to the jailhouse. I know that they keep the jail warm. Deputy Baldwin is an old man, and old men get cold awfully easily. You could be lying on a bunk in the cell, warm and waiting for your supper.
"Or, we can just carry this out, and you'll wind up in a place a lot warmer than the jail. I'm sure you know what I mean."
The gunman began to shake, then he took the gun away from the druggist's head and pointed it toward the porch. Damon White moved away quickly.
Duff didn't move. "Drop the gun, lad. Drop it, and this whole business will be over."
"You're crazy," the gunman said. "Walking up on me like that. You're crazy."
"Aye, so I've been told."
The man was still holding the pistol in his hand, though the barrel was pointing straight down.
"I'll nae be telling you again to drop the gun."
The gunman opened his hand, and the gun fell to the porch with a loud thump.
"Mr. White, you have a telephone in your establishment, I believe?" Duff asked.
"Y-yes," White said, relief from fear visible on his face.
"Would ye be so kind as to call the marshal's office 'n ask Deputy Baldwin if he would come collect his prisoner?"
"I'd be glad to. And the cough medicine is on the house."
Duff smiled. "'Tis a funny thing. I no longer feel the need for the elixir."
When Duff returned to where he had left his horse, several people applauded him.
"Come into the saloon, Duff, and I'll buy you a drink," someone said.
"I thank you for the offer, Mr. Miller, but I must step into this shop for a few moments," Duff replied, nodding toward the building next door to the saloon. A sign on the front of the building read Meagan's Dress Emporium.
A bell on the door jingled as Duff stepped inside.
"I'll be with you in a moment," a woman's voice called from the back of the room.
Stepping toward the sound of the voice, Duff saw Meagan parker on her knees, pinning up the skirt on a dress being worn by Martha Guthrie, wife of the mayor of Chugwater.
"Mrs. Guthrie, 'tis a beautiful picture you make in that dress. You'll be warming R.W.'s heart, and that's for sure.
Martha, who was a short and rather rotund woman, blushed and giggled at the compliment. "Oh, do you think so?"
"That's exactly what I've been telling her," Meagan said, standing up.
"I'm buying the dress for a Christmas party we'll be giving John, his wife, and our grandchildren," Martha said. "They're coming to town for Christmas."
"Oh, and what a joyous event that will be. I'll have to stop by to say hello," Duff replied.
"All right, Mrs. Guthrie, if you'll go back there and take off the dress, I'll have it finished for you in plenty of time," Meagan said.
Excerpted from A Frontier Christmas by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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