Better off Dead

Better off Dead

by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone

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The Greatest Western Writers Of The 21st Century

From America's bestselling Western authors comesthis violent saga of the frontier legend known as the Town Tamer: the man who appears when all justice has fled…

Feed The Beast--Or Die

On the West Texas border a behemoth is bellowing smoke, fire and death. This monster is the infamous Abaddon Cannon Foundry, whose weapons of war have spread death and destruction around the world--and made a few men in Big Buck, Texas, incredibly rich. Now, a Mexican-born teenager has disappeared into this fortress factory, where men work and sweat as slaves. This boy's sister wants to learn her brother's fate, and she just happens to know a man named Shawn O'Brien, the town tamer. Shawn rides to Texas to find the missing boy. What he discovers in Big Buck will spark a ferocious, bloody battle with the greatest evil the West ever known: masters of war who (laugh in the face of anyone who defies them--until Shawn O'Brien raises his six gun. Then the laughing stops.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786035670
Publisher: Kensington
Publication date: 02/23/2016
Series: Shawn O'Brien Series , #3
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 327,659
Product dimensions: 4.10(w) x 6.70(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

William W. Johnstone is the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of over 220 books, including the popular Ashes, Mountain Man, and Last Gunfighter series. Visit his website at or by email at

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. Bill, as he preferred to be called, 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 and creating believable characters. ‘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.'" The Loner marked the debut of Tennessee-based J.A. Johnstone as a solo author.

Read an Excerpt

Shawn O'Brien Better Off Dead

By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone


Copyright © 2016 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7860-3568-7


"Mister, you were warned to mind your own business and stay away from the foundry and you ignored me," the big man in the bowler hat said. "The gent you're looking for isn't here and it seems like we'll need to beat that fact into you."

Shawn O'Brien pushed himself off the saloon bar and faced four toughs, each armed with a hickory pickax handle. All wore bowler hats with goggles parked above the brims. Everyone who had cause to enter the Abaddon Cannon Foundry wore goggles.

"Maybe you will, Kilcoyn," Shawn said, clearing his gun. "But you'll step over your own dead to get to me."

He stood with his legs slightly apart, his gun hand close to the Colt on his hip. At that moment, relaxed, confident, significant, he looked like nobody's idea of a bargain. Tall, blond, his piercing blue eyes direct and unafraid, Shawn's frock coat and linen showed dust and wear from the trail, but their quality was unmistakable. The labels said Bond Street, London, and his riding boots, handmade in Philadelphia on a narrow last, were sewn sixty-four stitches to the inch with an awl so fine that an accidental piercing of the boot-maker's hand neither hurt nor drew blood. He wore a gold ring on the little finger of his left hand that bore the O'Brien family crest with its three lions and the motto, Lamh Laidir an Uachtar, "The Strong Hand From Above."

Valentine Kilcoyn was no fool. He was handy with a gun but first and foremost, he was a skull, boot, and fist fighter. The new breed of sophisticated gambler draw fighter was alien to him. He'd suspected that a hideout could be concealed under the man's frock coat, perhaps a derringer stuck in his waistband, but O'Brien had pulled back his coat and revealed an ivory-handled Colt and an expensive gun rig adorned with silver dragons that no ham-handed rube could afford. The bitterest lesson of all that Kilcoyn had learned in a past few moments was that this day might be his last. He could die with his beard in the sawdust because the man called the Town Tamer would be almighty sudden.

Kilcoyn had sand and there was no backup in him. He was primed and may have thrown down the ax handle and tried the draw. The kid beside him, a towhead with reckless eyes, seemed eager, but the other two company men held back and exchanged wary glances, wanting no part of what a fast gun like O'Brien could bring to a shoot-out.

The bartender put a stop to it. He leaned over the bar with a Greener scattergun in his hand and said, "Val, you and your boys back on out of here. I don't want dead men messing up my place today."

"You taking O'Brien's part, Ambrose?" Kilcoyn said, his eyes ugly.

"I'm taking nobody's part." Ambrose Hellen's anger flared. "You damn fool, Kilcoyn. You'd be dead afore your hand even touched your gun butt and the others with you. You've lost today, so git and run your head under a water pump and cool off."

"Man gives good advice, Kilcoyn," Shawn said. "Besides, my lunch is getting cold. Either get the hell out of here or have at it and let's get our work in."

Kilcoyn tried to save face. "Next time we meet, O'Brien, you won't have a bartender with a shotgun to protect you."

Suddenly Shawn O'Brien was done talking. He felt weary, used up, and more than a little angry. "Kilcoyn, get the hell out of here right now or I'll drop you where you stand."

Kilcoyn saw the writing on the wall. He knew if he even twitched a muscle he was in for a moment of hell-firing gunplay that would have him shaking hands with eternity. "Let's get out of here, boys. Our time will come soon enough."

After the Abaddon men left, Shawn picked up his plate of Irish stew and walked to the other end of the bar, away from the door. He forked a piece of potato into his mouth and made a face. "Damn, it's gone cold. Didn't I say that would happen?"

"Here, let me get you another plate," Ambrose Hellen said. "There's plenty in the pot."

When the bartender returned with a steaming plate, he put it on the bar in front of Shawn. "How's your brother Jacob?"

Shawn was puzzled. "How do you know —"

"I was bartending up El Paso way a few months back and he came into the saloon now and again to play the piano. I heard your name and put two and two together. But Jake don't wear fancy duds like you. I'd maybe give a dollar for everything he wore and ten for his horse."

"Jake is not one for sartorial splendor and he sits his ten-dollar horse like a sack of grain, never did learn to ride like a gentleman. Last I heard he was spending some time at Dromore, our father's ranch in the New Mexico Territory. He goes home now and then to say a rosary at Ma's grave. Other times, depending on where the wind blows him, he's spending time in a monastery or out in the wilderness bounty hunting. A time or two, he's gone on the scout after holding up a stage or a train. When Jake needs a grubstake, he's not one to care about getting on the wrong side of the law."

"He's a rum one is Jacob and no mistake," Hellen said. "He doesn't take any sass and he's mighty sudden with the iron."

Shawn smiled. "If it had been Jake here instead of me today, he'd have gunned two of those boys then beaten the other two to death with their own pickax handles. As you say, he doesn't take much sass."

"Mister, I don't think you take much sass either. How's the stew?"

"Real good. I think maybe I tasted better at the Langham Hotel in London, but it's a close-run thing."

The bartender served another customer then returned to Shawn. "Val Kilcoyn called you the Town Tamer."

Shawn nodded. "It's a name I didn't seek, but folks seem to have cottoned on to it so there it stands and I live with it."

"What exactly do you want to tame in Big Fork? This town is the Abaddon Cannon Foundry and not much else."

The saloon door opened and Hamp Sedley, dressed in his dusty gambler's finery, stepped inside. He saw Shawn at the bar, stepped to his side, and ordered a beer. "Hell, there ain't a woman in the town by the name Doña Elena Maria Cantrell. With a handle like that, she'd stick out in a burg like Big Buck. Well, she doesn't stick out because she ain't here."

Shawn said to the bartender, "Ever hear that name around these parts?"

Hellen shook his head. "No, I haven't. The women we get in here are females of a certain vocation. In Mexico, only noblewomen are addressed as Doña."

"Yeah, well like I said, I didn't see one of them." Sedley tried his beer. "Warm."

"You want cold beer, head for Alaska." Hellen turned away as a couple customers stepped to the bar.

"You missed all the fun, Hamp," Shawn said. "Valentine Kilcoyn and his toughs tried to warn me off again. For a minute there, I thought it might come to a shooting scrape."

"What happened?"

"We had a nice little talk and then the bartender took a hand and Kilcoyn and his boys left."

"I say we blow this burg, Shawn. Are you sure you read Jake's letter right? He's not one to ask favors."

"Yeah, I've read it about twenty times and each time I read it right. He said Doña Maria was in Big Buck and that she thinks her runaway little brother is working in the cannon foundry. Jake wants me to find him ... as a favor, one brother to another."

"How well does Jake know this gal?" Sedley asked.

"He slept with her. Is that well enough?"


"Yeah, Hamp, 'Oh.'"

Sedley shook his head. "Well, we've reached a dead end, seems to me. What the hell are you eating?"

"Irish stew."

"It looks like puke."

"Don't let the bartender hear you say that. He sets store by his stew and he's got a handy Greener scattergun behind the bar." Shawn laid his fork on his plate. "We'll give it another couple days. If we don't find Manuel Cantrell by then we'll head back to Denver and I'll write a letter of apology to Jake."

A big, soot-stained mechanic dressed in a heavy leather jerkin and pants, goggles pushed up on his head, walked into the saloon and looked around. His stare alighted on a small man wearing a claw hammer coat and top hat who stood alone at the end of the bar.

"Hey, Dorian Steggles. We got one for you," the big man said.

Steggles looked up. "In or out?"


"What happened?"

"He was shoveling coke for one of the blast furnaces and just fell over. Heart give out, I guess."

"But he's in you say?"


The undertaker took his goggles from the brim of his top hat and let them fall around his neck. "I hate it so much when it's in."

The big man shrugged. "I'm only a shift foreman. I can't control where and when the trolls drop."

Steggles sighed. "No, I suppose not, Mr. Breens. I'll get my assistants and be there shortly."

"Wait, Breens," Shawn called. "What's the dead man's name?"

Breens had a sharp answer ready to go, but when he took a good look at the tall, handsome man at the bar with a Colt on his hip he changed his mind. "Hell, mister, I don't know their names. He wasn't a white man, if that sets your mind at rest."

"I'm looking for a young Mexican man named Manuel Cantrell," Shawn said. "Have you heard that name? He's supposed to be working at Abaddon."

"Mister, there are three shifts at Abaddon, a hundred men to a shift, and I don't know any of their names. Try the front office."

"I did. They told me they'd never heard of him."

"Then he ain't there." Breens turned and walked out of the saloon.

"I want to take a look at that body," Shawn said.

"When?" Sedley asked, still beside him.

"Come nightfall when the undertaker's place is closed."

Sedley grimaced. "Well, that's something a man can look forward to."

"Why aren't you wearing your gun?"

"Don't see much point, Shawn. I can't hit anything with it."

"You can hit just fine at spitting distance. Make sure you wear it tonight."


Distracted by the flight of a hawk, Shawn O'Brien was looking skyward as he stepped off the boardwalk outside the saloon. At the last moment, Hamp Sedley grabbed his arm and yanked him back out of the path of a speeding horseless carriage. As the steam-powered monster flashed past, the handsome, middle-aged man in the backseat turned and glared at Shawn for having the audacity to get in his way.

Beside him a hard-faced but pretty blond woman yelled, "Watch where you walk, rube!"

By the time Shawn had recovered his balance, the steam car, trailing a billowing dust trail, swung in the direction of the foundry.

Shawn used his hat to pound dust off his coat and pants. "Who the hell was that? And what the hell was that?"

Another voice answered that question, but first, Mayor John Deakins stepped beside Shawn and introduced himself. "And according to what I was told by Ambrose Hellen, I'd say your name is Mr. Shawn O'Brien."

Shawn nodded.

"To answer your question, Mr. O'Brien, that gentleman is the owner of the Abaddon Cannon Foundry, maker of the finest instruments of mass destruction in this country or in any other, and he was driving a steam-powered horseless carriage, the vehicle of the future."

"What's his name? I reckon I'll tell him to slow down that contraption when he's driving through town," Shawn said.

"Ah yes, very commendable of you, I'm sure, but the owner is a man of mystery," Deakins said. "Very few people in this town know his name because he never, ever puts it out."

The mayor was a large-bellied, pompous man of impressive height, made more striking by his tall top hat with goggles above the brim. Shawn thought he looked like a more prosperous version of Mr. Dickens's Wilkins Micawber.

"Those like myself who do know the gentleman's name and have been invited to take a glimpse inside the foundry, a rare privilege, are sworn to secrecy," Deakins said. "I must confess that to me the foundry looks like a fire and brimstone haunt of the damned. Naked, sweating men toil in the glare of enormous furnaces and massive boilers bang and hiss like steam locomotives. But then doesn't every factory in our modern industrial age present such a fearsome aspect, even though its fortunate workers prosper like never before?"

"One of those prosperous workers died in there today," Sedley said.

"Alas, accidents happen, especially when one casts iron cannons that weigh many tons," the mayor said.

Shawn said, "The man dropped dead, or so his foreman told the undertaker."

"The work is hard and now and then a weakling will perish, but none of them are white men, so their deaths are hardly worth getting concerned over." The mayor took a magnificent gold skeleton watch from his vest pocket and consulted the time. "Well ... Mr. O'Brien ... I must be on my way. Business matters press me closely. But a word to the wise before I leave. The wealth of Abaddon trickles down to the people of Big Buck. Before the foundry arrived, we were just another dusty little cow town lost in the wilderness of southwest Texas. Now we have a railroad, the stores and the saloon are thriving, and we no longer depend on cattle but on steam engineers, mechanics, cannon borers, tradesmen of all kinds, and railroaders. This is why we don't pry too deeply into what goes on behind the walls of the foundry and neither should you."

Mayor Deakins smiled and pointed to the goggles on his top hat. "You will see many people in Big Buck wearing these. We wear them to show our solidarity with the foundry owner and his workers. Now good day to you both, gentlemen — and I do hope you heed my advice."

Shawn said, "Mayor, wait. We're looking —"

Without turning, Deakins waved a hand as he stomped away. "I said good day to you, sir."

Shawn ended his pursuit of Deakins when he bumped into an old lady who stood at the door of a hardware store. The woman wore a black shawl over her head and her face was lost in shadow.

He touched his hat. "I'm so sorry. That was clumsy of me."

Without lifting her veiled face, the woman shoved a scrap of paper into Shawn's hand and walked away, showing a brisk enough pace for such an old-timer.

The old dear's action involved secrecy of some sort and Shawn didn't look at the paper until he and Sedley sought the privacy of an alley between a general store and a bakery. The note was short and to the point.

Midnight. Meet me at the hangman's tree.

That was it. There was no signature.

"No signature," Sedley said with his usual knack of stating the obvious. "Maybe the old woman has some information on Manuel Cantrell. Or somebody paid her a few dollars to bait a trap."

Shawn agreed. "There's only one way to find out."

"You'll go?"

"Sure I will, once I know where the hangman's tree is located. Stroll with me, Hamp. I want to take another look at the foundry."


The Abaddon Cannon Foundry was a massive, rectangular building with a steeply angled roof dominated by three tall chimney stacks that constantly belched black smoke. The steel frame structure was sheathed with sheets of corrugated iron that had once been painted red but then faded to a dirty brown color, blackened with streaks of soot. There were a dozen outbuildings. The two largest were the dormitory and the adjoining canteen. Railroad tracks lay on the west side of the building where a loading dock was located and the line headed all the way into Old Mexico. Abaddon cannons cast in iron and bronze were considered the best in the world and served in the artilleries of all the European powers as well as the Chinese Imperial Army and many South American republics.

It was said that old Queen Victoria, on being introduced to a 9-pounder Abaddon cannon that had recently caused great execution among a native army, patted the barrel and declared that the artillery piece was "one of her most precious children." This caused one of the queen's more irreverent regiments of artillery to call their Abaddon 9-pounders Vickie's Bastards, until using that term was made punishable by court-martial.


Excerpted from Shawn O'Brien Better Off Dead by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2016 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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