In this thrilling frontier saga, bestselling authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone celebrate an unsung hero of the American West: a humble chuckwagon cook searching for justice—and fighting for his life . . .
DIE BY THE GUN
Dewey “Mac” McKenzie is wanted for a killing he didn’t commit. He saved his hide once by signing on as a cattle drive chuckwagon cook and bolting the territories. Turned out Mac was as good at fixing vittles as he was at dodging bullets. But Mac’s enemies are hungry for more—and they’ve hired a gang of ruthless killers to turn up the heat . . .
Mac’s only hope is to join another cattle drive on the Goodnight-Loving Trail, deep in New Mexico Territory. The journey ahead is even deadlier than the hired guns behind him. His trail boss is an ornery cuss. His crew mate is the owner’s spoiled son. And the route is overrun with kill-crazy rustlers and bloodthirsty Comanche. Worse, Mac’s would-be killers are closing in fast. But when the cattle owner’s son is kidnapped, the courageous young cook has no choice but to jump out of the frying pan—and into the fire . . .
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
Dewey Mackenzie spun away from the bar, the finger of whiskey in his shot glass sloshing as he avoided a body flying through the air. He winced as a gun discharged not five feet away from his head. He hastily knocked back what remained of his drink, tossed the glass over his shoulder to land with a clatter on the bar, and reached for the Smith & Wesson Model 3 he carried thrust into his belt.
A heavy hand gripped his shoulder with painful intensity. The bartender rasped, "Don't go pullin' that smoke wagon, boy. You do and things will get rough."
Mac tried to shrug off the apron's grip and couldn't. Powerful fingers crushed into his shoulder so hard that his right arm began to go numb. He looked across the barroom and wondered why the hell he had ever come to Fort Worth, much less venturing into Hell's Half Acre, where anything, no matter how immoral or unhealthy, could be bought for two bits or a lying promise.
Two different fights were going on in this saloon, and they threatened to involve more than just the drunken cowboys swapping wild blows. The man with the six-gun in his hand continued to ventilate the ceiling with one bullet after another.
Blood spattered Mac's boots as one of the fistfights came tumbling in his direction. He lifted his left foot to keep it from getting stomped on by the brawlers. A steer had already done that a month earlier when he had been chuckwagon cook on a cattle drive from Waco up to Abilene.
He had taken his revenge on the annoying mountain of meat, singling it out for a week of meals for the Rolling J crew. Not only had the steer been clumsy where it stepped, it had been tough, and more than one cowboy had complained. Try as he might to tenderize the steaks, by beating, by marinating, by cursing, Mac had failed.
That hadn't been the only steer he had come to curse. The entire drive had been fraught with danger, and more than one of the crew had died.
"That's why," he said out loud.
"What's that?" The barkeep eased his grip and let Mac turn from the fight.
"After the drive, after the cattle got sold off and sent on their way to Chicago from the Abilene railroad yards, I decided to come back to Texas to pay tribute to a friend who died."
The bartender's expression said it all. He was in no mood to hear maudlin stories any more than he was to break up the fights or prevent a disgruntled cowboy from plugging a gambler he thought was cheating him at stud poker.
"Then you need another drink, in his memory." When Mac didn't argue the point, the barkeep poured an inch of rye in a new glass and made the two-bit coin Mac put down vanish. A nickel in change rolled across the bar.
"This is for you, Flagg. I just hope it's not too hot wherever you are." Mac lifted the glass and looked past it to the dirty mirror behind the bar. A medium-sized hombre with longish dark hair and a deeply tanned face gazed back at him. The man he saw reflected wasn't the boy who had been hired as a cook by a crusty old trail boss. He had Patrick Flagg to thank for making him grow up.
A quick toss emptied the glass.
The fiery liquor burned a path to his belly and kindled a blaze there. He belched and knew he had reached his limit. Mac had no idea why he had come to this particular gin mill, other than he was footloose and drifting after being paid off for the trail drive. The money burned a hole in his pocket, but Dewey Mackenzie had never been much of a spendthrift. Growing up on a farm in Missouri hadn't given him the chance to have two nickels to rub together, much less important money to waste.
With deft instinct, he stepped to the side as two brawling men crashed into the bar beside him, lost their footing, and sprawled on the sawdust- littered floor. Mac looked down at them, then let out a growl. He reached out and grabbed the man on top by the back of his coat. A hard heave lifted the fighter into the air until the fabric began to tear. Mac swung the man around, deposited him on his feet, and looked him squarely in the eye.
"What mess have you gotten yourself into now, Rattler?"
"Hey, as I live and breathe!" the cowboy exclaimed. "Howdy, Mac. Never thought our paths would cross again after Abilene."
Rattler ducked as his opponent surged to his feet and launched a wild swing. Mac leaned to one side, the bony fist passing harmlessly past his head. He batted the arm down to the bar and pounced on it, pinning the man.
"Whatever quarrel you've got with my friend, consider it settled," Mac told the man sternly.
"Ain't got a quarrel. I got a bone to pick!" The drunk wrenched free, reared back, and lost his balance, sitting hard amid the sawdust and vomit on the barroom floor.
"Come on, Rattler. Let's find somewhere else to do some drinking." Mac grabbed the front of the wiry man's vest and pulled him along into the street.
Mayhem filled Hell's Half Acre tonight. In either direction along Calhoun Street, saloons belched customers out to continue the battles that had begun inside. Others, done with their recreation outside, crowded to get back in for more liquor.
Mac brushed dirt off his threadbare clothes. Spending some of his pay on a new coat made sense. He whipped off his black, broad-brimmed hat and smacked it a couple times against his leg. Dust clouds rose. His hair had been plastered back by sweat. The lack of any wind down the Fort Worth street kept it glued down as if he had used bear grease. He wiped tears from his cat-green eyes and knew he had to get away from the dust and filth of the city. It was dangerous on the trail, tending a herd of cattle, but it was cleaner and wide-open prairie. He might get stomped on by a steer but never had to worry about being shot in the back.
He knew better than to ask Rattler what the fight had been over. Likely, it had started for no reason other than to blow off steam.
"I thought you were going to find a gunsmith and get some work there," Mac said to his companion. "You're a better tinkerer than most of them in this town."
Mac touched the Model 3 in his belt. Rattler had worked on it from Waco to Abilene during the drive and had turned his pappy's old sidearm into a deadly weapon that shot straight and true every time the trigger was pulled. For that, Mac thanked Rattler.
For teaching him how to draw fast and aim straight, he gave another silent nod to Patrick Flagg. More than teaching him how to draw faster than just about anyone, Flagg had also taught him when not to draw at all.
Rattler said, "And I thought you was headin' back to New Orleans to woo that filly of yours. What was her name? Evie?"
"Evangeline," Mac said.
"Yeah, you went on and on, even callin' out her name in your sleep. With enough money, you shoulda been able to win her over."
Mac knew better. He loved Evangeline Holdstock, and she had loved him until Pierre Leclerc had set his cap for her. Leclerc's plans included taking over Evie's father's bank after marrying her — probably inheriting it when he murdered Micah Holdstock.
Being framed for Micah's murder had been enough to convince Mac to leave New Orleans. Worse, the frame had also convinced Evie to have nothing to do with him other than to scratch out his eyes if he got close enough to the only woman he had ever loved.
His only hope of ever winning her back was to prove Leclerc had murdered Holdstock. Somehow, his determination to do that had faded after Leclerc had sent killers after him to Waco.
Mac smiled ruefully. If he hadn't been dodging them, he never would have signed on with the Rolling J crew and found he had a knack for cooking and cattle herding. The smile melted away when he realized Evie was lost forever to him, and returning to New Orleans meant his death, either from Leclerc's killers or at the end of a hangman's rope.
"There's other fish in the sea. Thass what they say," Rattler went on, slurring his morsel of advice. He braced himself against a hitching post to point at a three-story hotel across the street. "The House of Love, they call it. They got gals fer ever' man's taste there. Or so I been told. Less go find ourselves fillies and spend the night, Mac. We owe it to ourselves after all we been through."
"That's a mighty attractive idea, Rattler, but I want to dip my beak in some more whiskey. You can go and dip your, uh, other beak. Don't let me hold you back."
"They got plenny of ladies there. Soiled doves." Rattler laughed. "They got plenny of them to last the livelong night, but I worry this town's gonna run outta popskull."
With an expansive sweep of his arm, he indicated the dozen saloons within sight along Calhoun Street. It was past midnight and the drinking was beginning in earnest now. Every cowboy in Texas seemed to have crowded in with a powerful thirst demanding to be slaked by gallons of bad liquor and bitter beer.
"Which watering hole appeals to you, Rattler?" Mac saw each had a different attraction. Some dance halls had half-naked women willing to share a dance, rubbing up close, for a dime or until the piano player keeled over, too drunk to keep going. Others featured exotic animals or claimed imported food and booze from the four corners of the world.
Mac had become cynical enough to believe the whiskey and brandy they served came from bottles filled like all the others, from kegs and tanks brought into Hell's Half Acre just after sunrise. That's when most customers were passed out or too blind drunk to know the fancy French cognac they paid ten dollars a glass for was no different from the ten-cent tumbler filled with the same liquor at the drinking emporium next door. It was referred to as poor man's whiskey.
"Don't much matter. That one's close enough so I don't stagger too much gettin' to it." The man put his arm around Mac's shoulders for support, turned on unsteady feet, and took a step. He stopped short and looked up to a tall, dark man dressed in black. "'Scuse us, mister. We got some mighty hard drinkin' to do, and you're blockin' the way."
"Dewey Mackenzie," the man said in a hoarse whisper, almost drowned out by raucous music pouring from inside the saloon.
"Yeah, he's my friend," Rattler said, pulling away from Mac and stumbling to the side.
When he did so, he got in the way of the dark man's shot. Mac had never seen a man move faster. The Peacemaker cleared leather so swiftly the move was a blur. Fanning the hammer sent three slugs ripping out in a deadly rain that tore into Rattler's body. He threw up his arms, a look of surprise on his face as he collapsed backward into Mac's arms.
He died without saying another word.
"Damn it," the gunman growled, stepping to the side to get a better shot at Mac.
Shock disappeared as Mac realized he had to move or die. With a heave he lifted his dead friend up and tossed him into the shooter. The corpse knocked the gunman's aim off so his fourth bullet tore past Mac and sailed down Calhoun Street. Almost as an afterthought, someone farther away let out a yelp when the bullet found an unexpected target.
Mac had practiced for hours during the long cattle drive. His hand grabbed the wooden handles on the S&W. The pistol pulled free of his belt. He wasn't even aware of all he did, drawing back the hammer as he aimed, the pressure of the trigger against his finger, the recoil as the revolver barked out its single deadly reply.
The gunman caught the bullet smack in the middle of his chest. It staggered him. Propped against a hitching post, he looked down at a tiny red spot spreading on his gray-striped vest. His eyes came up and locked with Mac's.
"You shot me," he gasped. He used both hands to raise his six-gun. The barrel wobbled back and forth.
"Why' d you kill Rattler?" Mac held his gun in a curiously steady hand. The sights were lined on the gunman's heart.
He never got an answer. The man's pistol blasted another round, but this one tore into the ground between them. He let out a tiny gurgling sound and toppled straight forward, like an Army private at attention all the way down. A single twitch once he hit the ground was the only evidence of life fleeing.
"That's him!" a man shouted. "That's Mackenzie. He gunned down Jimmy!"
Another man said, "Willy's not gonna take kindly to this."
Mac looked up to see a pair of men pushing hurriedly through the saloon's batwing doors. It didn't take a genius to recognize the dead gunman's family. They might have been chiseled out of the same stone — broad shoulders, square heads, height within an inch of each other. Their coats were of the same fabric and color, and the Peacemakers slung at their hips might have been bought on the same day from the same gunsmith.
Even as they took in how the dead man had found the quarry Leclerc had put a bounty on, their hands went for their guns. Neither man was too quick on the draw, taking time to push away the long tails of their coats. This gave Mac the chance to swing his own gun around and get off a couple of shots.
Flying lead whined past both men and into the saloon they had just exited. Glass broke inside and men shouted angrily. Then all hell broke loose as the patrons became justifiably angry at being targeted. Several of them boiled out of the saloon with guns flashing and fists flying.
The two gunmen dodged Mac's slugs, but the rush of men from inside bowled them over, sending them stumbling out into the dusty street. Mac considered trying to dispatch them, then knew he had a tidal wave to hold back with only a couple of rounds.
"Sorry, Rattler," he said, taking a second to touch the brim of his hat in tribute to his trail companion. They had never been friends but had been friendly. That counted for something during a cattle drive.
He vaulted over Rattler's body, grabbed for the reins of a black stallion tethered to the side of the saloon, and jumped hard, landing in the saddle with a thud. The spirited animal tried to buck him off. Mac had learned how to handle even the proddiest cayuse in any remuda. He bent low, grabbed the horse around the neck, and hung on for dear life as the horse bolted into the street.
A new threat posed itself then — or one that had been delayed, anyway. Both of the dead gunman's partners — or brothers or whatever they were — opened fire on him. Mac stayed low, using the horse as a shield.
"Horse thief!" The strident cry came from one of the gunmen. This brought out cowboys from a half dozen more saloons. Getting beaten to a bloody pulp or even shot full of holes meant nothing to these men. But having a horse thief among them was a hanging offense.
"There he is!" Mac yelled as he sat up in the saddle and pointed down the street. "The thieving bastard just rounded the corner. After him!"
The misdirection worked long enough for him to send the mob off on a wild goose chase, but that still left two men intent on avenging their partner. Mac put his head down again, jerked the horse's reins, and let the horse gallop into a barroom, scattering the customers inside.
He looked around as he tried to control the horse in the middle of the sudden chaos he had created. Going back the way he came wouldn't be too smart. A quick glance in the mirror behind the bar showed both of the black-clad men crowding through the batwings and waving their guns around.
A savage roar caught his attention. In a corner crouched a black panther, snarling to reveal fierce fangs capable of ripping a man apart. No wonder the black stallion was going loco. He had to be able to smell the big cat.
The huge creature strained at a chain designed to hold a riverboat anchor. The clamor rose as the bartender shouted at Mac to get his horse out of the saloon. The apron-clad man reached under the bar and pulled out a sawed-off shotgun.
"Out, damn your eyes!" the bartender bellowed as he leveled the weapon.
Mac whirled around and began firing, not at the panther but at the wall holding the chain. The chain itself was too strong for a couple of bullets to break.
The wood splintered as Mac's revolver came up empty. When the panther lunged again, it pulled the chain staple free and dragged it into the room. The customer nearest the cat screeched as heavy claws raked at him.
Then the bartender fired his shotgun and Mac yelped as rock salt burned his face and arm. Worse, the rock salt spooked the horse even more than the attacking panther.
The stallion exploded like a Fourth of July rocket. Mac did all he could do to hang on as the horse leaped through a plate glass window. Glittering shards flew in all directions, but he was out of the saloon and once more in the street.
The sense of triumph faded fast when both gunmen who'd been pursuing him boiled out through the window he had just destroyed.
"That's him, Willy. Him's the one what killed Jimmy!"
Mac looked back at death stalking him. A tall, broad man with a square head and the same dark coat pushed back the tails to reveal a double-gun rig. Peacemakers holstered at either hip quickly jumped into the man's grip. Using both hands, the man started firing. And he was a damned good shot.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Die by the Gun"
Copyright © 2018 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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