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.'"
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Hell's Half Acre: Cold-Blooded
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2015 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"My dear Senator Jennings, you can't stand fifty-three criminals against a wall and shoot them down with Gatling guns," Major General Thomas Lambert said. "The public would never allow it."
"It's all about money, General," Senator William Jennings said. "We can't afford the dollars to keep the scum alive any longer."
"I am aware of that," Lambert said. "And I've been in touch with the warden of Huntsville and I'm very sympathetic to his problem."
Lambert was a beautiful infantry officer, resplendent in blue and gold. A trimmed, spade-shaped beard spread across his chest and his great mane of iron gray hair fell in perfumed ringlets to his shoulders.
"There's always the Indian Territory," Jennings said. In stark contrast to the army officer, Jennings was a thin, spare man with the aesthetic face of an English Lake Poet.
"Out of the question, my dear sir," Lambert said. "We have quite enough problems with outlaws and renegades in the Territory as it is. We will not allow you to send us more miscreants." He smiled. "Add fuel to the fire, so to speak."
Rain drummed on the roof of the senator's private railcar, which had been pulled into a siding two miles north of Houston. Outside, the capes of the army guards glistened in the light cast from the carriage windows, and their fixed bayonets gleamed.
Inside, the car smelled of cigar smoke and brandy and of Senator Jennings's sweaty frustration.
"The cost is outrageous, General," he said. "It's out of all proportion to the number of men involved. Murderers, rapists and outlaws of every stripe. I can't lease them out as labor. No one will hire them because they represent such a danger to the community. Those men out there in the cages require extra guards around the clock, another vast expense that Huntsville, indeed the great state of Texas, cannot afford."
"Then I have two suggestions to make," General Lambert said. He turned to his aide. "Major Holt, please read them to the senator."
Holt was young, eager, the son of a senator and very much a political soldier. He had seen no action nor did he desire any. Washington was his battlefield, a mahogany desk his steed.
"General Lambert suggests thusly," Holt said. He read from the paper in his hands. "The prisoners be returned to Huntsville and there be hanged one by one under the greatest secrecy."
"There is no secrecy in Huntsville," Jennings said. "I have been told to make the prison less costly, but hanging fifty-three in one go would certainly cause a riot. Gentlemen, conditions in Huntsville are vicious, brutal and cramped. The governor tells me he currently has two thousand men in one hundred and thirty cells, each cell designed to house just one man. Convicts are lashed, starved, chained in solitary for months at a time and revolt is in the air. Fifty-three hangings could tip them over the edge and the impact on neighboring communities would be horrendous."
Lambert took that with a nod, Holt with a smile.
"My other plan," the general said, staring at the glowing tip of his cigar, "is that you drive the convicts into the desert somewhere and shoot into the cages. Then you leave them there. The wounded will soon die of thirst."
"Wise solution though it may be, I have a problem with that, General," Jennings said. "Like the hangings, the word will get out. When men drink they go on the brag and a secret like that will not be kept. With an election growing ever closer you can imagine what a field day my opponent would have. Why, I'd be crucified in his newspapers as a mass murderer."
Lambert opened his mouth to speak but Jennings held up a silencing hand. "Perhaps at this juncture I should note that none of these criminals are condemned men. No, they are all serving sentences of thirty years to life."
"A damned disgrace if you ask me," General Lambert said. "They did the crime and should pay the penalty."
"Blame the judges," Jennings said. "Just lock them away where they can do no more harm and let the citizens of Texas pay for them. That's the modern attitude in the law courts these days, I'm told."
"Damned impertinence," Lambert said. "Coddling criminals like that."
"Can I speak?"
This from a thickset man wearing an old Union greatcoat, a bowler hat, and a muffler around his bull neck. Under the coat he wore a checked jacket and pants and he carried a Colt in a shoulder holster. He was a scar-faced man in his midfifties and looked like a vicious criminal himself.
"Yes, you may," Jennings said. "General Lambert, this gentleman's name is Herbert Coffin. He's been hired to supervise the transportation of the prisoners to ... well, wherever we can take them."
Both officers in the car glanced at Coffin as though he smelled like something dead, a result of the soldiers' disdain for civilians and an acute awareness of their gulf in class. Earlier, Coffin had not been offered brandy and cigars.
Jennings saw the expressions on the officers' faces and thought his employee's bona fides would help him rise in their esteem. He made matters worse.
"During the war Mr. Coffin served the Union as a camp guard at Point Lookout," he said. "He knows how to deal with prisoners."
It was the wrong thing to say to Lambert, a fighting soldier who had served in the war as a major of infantry and had battled both Comanche and Apache since.
"I heard that in two years fourteen thousand prisoners died at Point Lookout, the result of disease, starvation and beatings," he said.
Coffin shrugged. "They were rebs. What did they expect?"
Lambert's face flushed with anger but Jennings deflected the general's wrath. "What was it you wished to say, Mr. Coffin?" he said.
"I've got a solution to your problem, Senator. You want to dump fifty-three convicts, so dump 'em in a place where they'll never be noticed."
"And where might that be?" Jennings said.
"Two hundred and fifty miles northwest of here there's a dunghill of a town called Fort Worth. And its worst area is the Third Ward, a stinking slum they call Hell's Half Acre."
"I'm aware of the town," Jennings said. "But I've never visited there."
"Your only interest should be the Acre," Coffin said. "I've spent time there and it's full of saloons, bawdy houses, dance halls and opium dens. It's a haven for gunmen, highway robbers, card sharks, whores and con artists." Coffin reached inside his coat and produced a newspaper clipping. "Here, Senator, read that to the military gentlemen. It's about the Acre."
Jennings glanced at the clip then read aloud, "'It's a slow night which does not pan out a cutting or shooting scrape among its male denizens or a fatal morphine experiment by one of its frisky females.'"
Jennings handed the paper back to Coffin, his face bright. "We dump the convicts there?" he said.
"Those boys out there will fit right in, Senator. In the Acre they'll be among their own kind and nobody will even notice them. I reckon in a couple of months or so, they'll all be dead."
Jennings clapped his hands. "Brilliant! What do you think, General Lambert? I believe we have found the answer, thanks to Mr. Coffin, solved in the space of a moment."
"It is an excellent solution to your problem, Senator," Lambert said. "Dump trash among trash and no one will take heed." He grudgingly looked at Coffin and said, "How long to get your wagons there?"
"Two weeks, I reckon," Coffin said. "Good weather or bad. I'll drive 'em, by God."
Jennings said, "Good! I think that calls for another drink. Mr. Coffin, a brandy with you?"
"No," Coffin said. "I reckon I'll step outside and check on my prisoners."CHAPTER 2
Herb Coffin left the railcar and walked into the lashing rain. An army guard nodded and Coffin nodded back. "Going to check on my prisoners," he said.
"Hell to be a prisoner on a night like this," said the soldier, a middle-aged man with a cold clay pipe in his mouth.
"Hell to be a prisoner on any night," Coffin said. Lightning scrawled across the sky and thunder rumbled.
There were three caged prison wagons, the fifty-three convicts split among them. Murderers and robbers were confined twenty to a wagon, the remaining wagon more sparsely occupied with six rapists, the remainder blacks and Mexicans.
No attempt had been made to shelter the wagons from the rain. They were parked out in the open and their occupants were soaked, a few of them coughing.
Coffin lit a cigar and stopped at the first wagon. "How many of you boys are still alive?" he said.
"All of us," a man's voice said from the darkness. "We won't cash in our chips until we get our hands around your throat, Coffin."
"Maybe you'll get your chance," Coffin said. "I'm taking you boys for a long drive in the country. You'll like that, won't you?"
Coffin took a billy club from his pocket and slammed it into the bars. The prisoners were packed so closely that he hit heads and shoulders and men cried out in pain.
"Answer me when I ask a question," Coffin said. "You'll like that, won't you?"
A few of the prisoners muttered yes, but then a wide-shouldered man with a ragged prison beard pushed his way to the bars of the cage and said, "I'm going to kill you, Coffin. I swear, I'll gut you like the swine you are."
Coffin grinned, the rain in his face. "Well, if it ain't Major Ford Talon, the hero of the South. After the sixty lashes I gave you at Huntsville I thought for sure you'd be dead by now."
"You cut my back up, Coffin. But I wouldn't let you kill me. You hear me, I willed myself to stay alive until the day I could get a bullet into your miserable carcass."
Coffin said, grinning, "You're a walking dead man, Talon. We're all going to a place, but you ain't never gonna get there. Study on that for a spell until your guts turn into jelly."
"I'm not a boasting man, but I don't scare easy. I'll get to where we're going, Coffin, and by God, then I'll get you," Talon said.
Coffin pulled his Colt and pointed it at Talon's head. "Pow!" he said.
He walked away laughing, the heedless rain falling around him.CHAPTER 3
"I don't want no trouble from you, Casey," Luke Short said.
Sheriff Jess Casey nodded. "Very commendable of you, Luke."
Short studied the wanted dodgers on the office wall and said, "You can take that one down. Poke Ritter got all shot to pieces by lawmen a month ago up in the Indian Territory." He shook his head. "Pity. Poke was a good man."
"Says there he was a murderer and a bank robber," Jess said.
"Ah well, to each his own, I guess," Short said. "He was still a good man."
"Luke, you didn't come in here to keep me up to date on my wanted posters," Jess said. "What can I do for you?" "So that everything is aboveboard and out in the open, I want your legal permission to shoot a man."
"What man?" Jess said.
"You know Banjo Tom Van Meter? He played in my orchestra at the White Elephant for a spell. He's the one who cut up Bill Tate that time."
"No, I can't say I've had the pleasure."
"Well, no matter. The thing is he took Lulu Lanahan away from me, plans to pimp her himself. As a gentleman I can't let that stand. It's a matter of honor."
"And you want me to say it's all right to put a bullet in him?" Jess said.
"Sure I do. Banjo Tom always goes around heeled, so it will be a fair fight," Short said. "Hell, if it helps, I'll let him draw first."
"No matter, Luke. I can't give you the law's permission to kill a man. Let Banjo Tom be and find yourself another Lulu."
Short's face registered his displeasure. "If Tom Van Meter asked your permission to kill me would you give it to him?"
"Probably, Luke, probably."
"All right, then from this day onward we're enemies, Casey," Short said.
Jess smiled. "I thought we were that already."
"Oh yeah? Well now we're even worse enemies than we were before."
Luke Short slammed out of the office and Jess listened to the departing thud of his shoes on the boardwalk. He nodded to himself. It might be a good idea to have words with Banjo Tom and warn him that Luke made a mighty dangerous enemy.
* * *
A strange restlessness in him, Jess stepped to the window and looked out on crowded Main Street. People promenaded on the boardwalks and the wheels of commerce, the heavy freight wagons, trundled past, trace chains rattling as the great Percherons leaned into their collars. It was still early morning but dust clouded the air and beige streaks of horse dung lay everywhere.
Things had been quiet in Hell's Half Acre for a week now. The only incidents of note were a cutting at the Silver Garter saloon, Kurt Koenig's place, and a minor shooting scrape on Rusk that left no one injured except a passerby who got his left thumb shot off. The shooter, a businessman named Miller, paid the victim compensation and later a fifty-dollar fine for the discharge of a firearm in a public place. A pregnant woman gave birth in a dance hall after taking part in a polka and there was a suicide by hanging at a slum tenement on 12th Street. And of course, Luke Short wanted to kill a man legally.
For the first time since he'd arrived in Fort Worth Jess Casey felt bored. Yet he was uneasy, on edge, a jumpiness in him. As any lawman will confirm, when things get too quiet something real bad is about to happen. It always works that way. As surely as night follows day.
* * *
The prison wagons were twelve hours from Fort Worth when Herb Coffin called a halt to feed and water the prisoners. Around the wagons stretched a vast expanse of hilly grasslands broken up by mesquite, stands of wild oak at the higher elevations and sumac and bois d'arc along the creek bottoms.
Including the drivers, Coffin had six guards up on the cage wagons and two more mounted. The guards deployed, carrying belt guns and rifles, before the cons were allowed to crawl out of the wagons and stretch their aching bodies. Breakfast was hard biscuit left over from the war and cold salt pork speckled with green mold.
As he always did, Ford Talon sat away from the other prisoners, his face turned to the burning sun. He opened his eyes when a shadow blocked the rays and saw, haloed by dazzling sunlight, the mounted form of Herb Coffin.
"This is where you get off, Major Talon," he said. "It's the end of the line." Sweat ran down Coffin's face and his smile was vicious. "You killed Thomson and Burt real easy, didn't you? That's because they were stupid enough to let you close. I won't make that mistake."
"They died like the pigs they were, Coffin. And so will you," Talon said.
"Now that's hardly likely, is it?" Coffin said. "I'm the man with the rifle." He grinned. "You know, Thomson and Burt kicked him all right, but he didn't die until I stomped his head to a pulp. So all was in vain, Major. You never avenged your brother at all."
Talon knew what Coffin wanted. The man was trying to goad him into an attack so he could justify the killing to the other guards. But Talon refused to play Coffin's game. He sat where he was, the taste of rotten salt pork in his mouth and a heart full of hell.
Coffin said, "Soon. If you got any prayers, say them, Johnny Reb."
He swung his horse away and left Talon to his thoughts.
His brother Johnny had died at Lookout Point, kicked to death by Coffin and two other guards. He and Johnny had been posted to different cavalry regiments and he didn't learn how Johnny had died until he talked with veterans who'd been locked up with him in that dreadful place.
After that Talon took to the vengeance trail. He'd killed one of the guards, Burt, in a saloon in El Paso and had tracked another, Thomson, to Kansas, where he worked as a deputy sheriff. Talon had been wounded in that shooting scrape but had killed his man. Later he'd been arrested in Galveston and tried for murder and had been sentenced to thirty years in Huntsville. He'd not heard anything of the third guard, Herb Coffin, until the man was put in charge of the prison wagons. His experience with beaten, starved men had stood him in good stead.
Now he'd caught up with Coffin but it looked as though the man was right. His vengeance trail ended right there. Talon was on the wrong side of forty and not afraid to die — he'd seen too much of that on a dozen battlefields — but the thought of Coffin going free made him sick to the stomach.
* * *
The prisoners were shoved and kicked back into the wagons, except for Talon and a man who'd died sometime in the night.
"You men go on," Coffin told the guards. "I'll catch up after I've concluded my business here."
This brought cheers, jeers, and much grinning from the guards, but Coffin's face was serious. Executing a man took some mental preparation.
The wagons rolled across the long grass, then swung east, headed for the Trinity. Ford Talon glanced at the blue denim sky where the sun burned like a red-hot coin. Insects made their small music in the grass and high up a hawk glided like an angel, but its searching eyes were full of deviltry.
Excerpted from Hell's Half Acre: Cold-Blooded by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2015 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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