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LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe bombardment sounded like the worst thunderstorm in the history of the world, but unlike a thunderstorm, it went on and on and on. For long days, that devil Ulysses S. Grant and his Yankee army had squatted outside Richmond, pounding away at the capital city of the Confederacy with their big guns. Half the buildings in town had been reduced to rubble, and untold numbers of Richmond's citizens were dead, killed in the endless barrages.
And still the guns continued to roar.
Rangy, rawboned Luke Jensen felt the floor shake under his feet as shells fell not far from the building where he stood. It had been one of Richmond's genteel mansions, not far from the capital itself, but recently it had been taken over by the government. One particular part of the government, in fact: the Confederate treasury.
Luke was one of eight men summoned tonight for reasons unknown to them. They were waiting in what had been the parlor before the comfortable, overstuffed furniture was shoved aside and replaced by desks and tables.
In the light of a couple smoky lamps, he glanced around at the other men. Some of them he knew, and some he didn't. The faces of all bore the same weary, haggard look, the expression of men who had been at war for too long and suffered too many defeats despite their best efforts.
Luke knew that look all too well. He saw it in the mirror every time he got a chance to shave, which wasn't very often these days.
For nearly four long years, he had worn Confederate gray—ever since the day he had walked away from the hardscrabble farm tucked into the Ozark Mountains of southwestern Missouri and enlisted. Behind him he'd left his father Emmett and his little brother Kirby, along with his mother and sister.
It had been hard for Luke to leave his family, but he felt it was the right thing to do. Fighting for the Confederacy didn't mean a man held with slavery, although he figured that was what all those ignorant Yankees believed. Luke didn't believe at all in the notion of one man owning another.
At the same time he didn't think it was right for a bunch of Northern politicians in By-God Washington City to be telling Southern folks what they could and couldn't do, especially when it came to secession. The states had joined together voluntarily, back when they'd won their freedom from England. If some of them wanted to say "thanks, but so long" and go their own way, it seemed to Luke they had every right to do so.
Even so, if they'd just kept on wrangling about it in the halls of Congress, Luke, like a lot of other Southerners, would have pretty much ignored it and gone on about his business. But Abraham Lincoln had to go and send the army marching into Virginia, and the battle along the creek called Bull Run was the last straw as far as Luke was concerned. He'd been raised to avoid trouble if he could, but when a Jensen saw something wrong going on, he couldn't just sit back and do nothing.
So he'd been a soldier for four years, fighting against the Northern aggressors, slogging along as an infantryman for a while before his natural talents for tracking, shooting, and fighting got noticed and he was made a scout and a sharpshooter.
He knew three of the men waiting in the parlor with him were the same sort. Remy Duquesne, Dale Cardwell, and Edgar Millgard were good men, and if he was being sent on some sort of mission with them, Luke was fine with that.
The other four had introduced themselves as Keith Stratton, Wiley Potter, Josh Richards, and Ted Casey. Luke hadn't formed an opinion about them based only on their names. He didn't blame them for being closemouthed, though. He was the same way himself.
Remy fired up a cigar and said in his soft Cajun accent, "Anybody got an idea why they brought us here tonight?"
"Not a clue," Wiley Potter said.
"The treasury department has its office here now," Dale Cardwell pointed out. He smiled. "Maybe they're finally going to pay us all those back wages we haven't seen in months."
That comment drew grim chuckles from several of the men.
Remy said, "I wouldn't count on that, my frien'."
Luke didn't think it was very likely, either. The Confederacy was in bad shape. Financially, militarily, morale-wise ... everything was cratering, and there didn't seem to be anything anybody could do to stop it. They would fight to the end, of course—there was no question about that—but that end seemed to be getting more and more inevitable.
The front door opened, and footsteps sounded in the foyer. Several gray-clad troopers appeared in the arched entrance to the former parlor. They carried rifles with bayonets fixed to the barrels.
A pair of officers followed the soldiers into the room. Luke and the other men snapped to attention. He recognized one of the officers as a high-ranking general. The other man was the colonel who commanded the regiment in which Luke, Remy, Dale, and Edgar served.
The two men in civilian clothes who came into the room behind the general and the colonel were the real surprise. Luke caught his breath as he recognized the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and the Secretary of the Treasury, George Trenholm.
"At ease," the general said.
Luke and the others relaxed, but not much. It was hard to be at ease with the president in the room.
Jefferson Davis gave them a sad, tired smile and said, "Thank you for coming here tonight, gentlemen," as if they'd had a choice in the matter. "I know you'd probably rather be with your comrades in arms, facing the enemy."
Stratton and Potter grimaced slightly and exchanged a quick glance, as if that was the last thing they wanted to be doing.
"I've summoned you because I have a special job for you," Davis went on. "Secretary Trenholm will tell you about it."
Luke had wondered if they were going to be given a special assignment, but he hadn't expected it would come from the president himself. It had to be something of extreme importance. He waited eagerly to hear what the treasury secretary was going to say.
"As you know, Richmond is under siege by the Yankees," the man began rather pompously as he clasped his hands behind his back.
Luke preferred Confederate politicians to Yankees, but they all had a tendency to be windbags, as far as he was concerned.
"Although I hate to say it, it appears that our efforts to defend the city ultimately will prove to be unsuccessful," the secretary continued.
"Are you saying that Richmond's going to fall, sir?" Potter asked.
Trenholm nodded. "I'm afraid so."
"But that doesn't necessarily mean the Confederacy is about to fall as well," Davis put in. "Our glorious nation will persevere. The Yankees may overrun Richmond, but we will establish a new capital elsewhere." He smiled at the treasury secretary. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt."
"That's quite all right, Mr. President. No one in this room has more right to speak than you." Trenholm cleared his throat and went on. "Of course, no government can continue to function without funds, so to that end, acting on the orders of President Davis, I have assembled a shipment of gold bullion that is to be spirited out of the city and taken to Georgia to await the arrival of our government. This is most of what we have left in our coffers, gentlemen. I'm not exaggerating when I say the very survival of the Confederacy itself depends on the secure transport of this gold."
Luke wasn't surprised by what he had just heard. For the past few days, rumors had been going around the city that the treasury was going to be cleaned out and the money taken elsewhere so the Yankees wouldn't get their grubby paws on it.
The secretary nodded toward Luke's commanding officer. "Colonel Lancaster will be in charge of the gold's safety."
"You're taking the whole regiment to Georgia, sir?" Dale asked.
The colonel shook his head. "Not at all, Corporal. That would only draw the Yankees' attention to what we're doing." Lancaster paused. "We're entrusting the safety of the bullion—and the future of the Confederacy—to a smaller detail. Eight men, to be exact." He looked around the room. "The eight of you who are gathered here."
Chapter TwoLuke had figured that out even before Lancaster said it. The idea seemed obvious. Getting the gold out of Richmond would require speed and stealth, and no one was better at moving fast and quiet than he and his fellow scouts.
It seemed like a mighty big risk, though, turning over a fortune in gold to only eight men. Of course, as long as they were loyal to the Confederacy, it didn't really matter.
"I'll be going along as well," Colonel Lancaster pointed out. "I've been relieved of my command of the regiment and given this task."
"I know you'd rather be with the men you've led in such sterling fashion, Colonel," Jefferson Davis said. "However, we all must make sacrifices for our noble cause."
"Of course, Mr. President," Lancaster said stiffly.
Davis turned back to Luke and the other scouts. "No one is going to order you enlisted men to accept this assignment. If there are any of you who don't want to go along, speak up now, and it won't be held against you. You'll be allowed to return to your units. All we ask is that you say nothing about this. Secrecy is the watchword until the bullion is safely on its way to Georgia."
Luke looked at his friends. Remy shrugged and told Davis, "Mr. President, I don't think any of us are gonna say no to this job."
"That's right," Edgar said. "If this is something that will help the Confederacy, you can count on us, sir."
"I knew that." Davis smiled. "I knew you valiant lads wouldn't let me down, but I felt it was only right to ask. Thank you for justifying my faith in you."
"You can thank us when we get that gold where it's goin', Mr. President," Stratton said.
Luke had been quiet so far, but he asked, "When are we leaving?"
"Tonight," Colonel Lancaster said.
"That soon?" Potter was surprised.
"Do you have a problem with that, Sergeant? Something you need to do here in Richmond before you leave?"
Potter grunted and shook his head. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Go ahead," Lancaster told him.
"Richmond's turned into a hellhole ever since the Yankees showed up on our doorstep, and as far as I'm concerned, the sooner we get out of here, the better."
As if to punctuate his comment, another shell fell somewhere nearby, and the blast shook the house enough that little bits of plaster sifted down from the ceiling.
The general said to Davis, "You should get back to somewhere safer, sir. The colonel and I can handle this."
"Very well, General." Davis turned to the treasury secretary. "Come on, George."
The troopers escorted the two politicians from the room. Once they were gone, Colonel Lancaster said, "The gold is being stored in a warehouse not far from here. It's packed in crates in a couple wagons and covered with canvas so they'll look like supplies."
"No offense, Colonel," Luke said, "but are you sure that's a good idea? With the city cut off like it is, people are starting to get pretty hungry. They're liable to come after food quicker than they would gold."
"How else would you suggest we transport it, Jensen?" the colonel snapped.
Luke shrugged. "I don't know, sir," he admitted. "As scarce as everything is these days, folks are going to be interested no matter what it looks like."
"That's why it's up to us to get the wagons out of the city quickly, and with as little fuss as possible. We have civilian clothes at the warehouse for all of you, as well. Hopefully that'll keep you from drawing too much attention."
Luke didn't know about that, but the idea of getting some fresh duds appealed to him. His gray uniform was worn and ragged and covered with stains from too many nights spent sleeping in the mud. The black bill of his forage cap was crooked and broken. His shoes were more hole than shoe leather.
His only possessions still in good shape were his Fayetteville rifle and his Griswold and Gunnison revolver, both of which he kept in excellent condition. His life often depended on them.
The general shook hands with all eight of the scouts and wished them luck, then Colonel Lancaster said gruffly, "Let's go. We'll dispense with military formality since we're supposed to be civilians, but don't forget who's in charge here."
Luke didn't think Lancaster was likely to let that happen.
"I don't know about you boys," Ted Casey said with a wide grin, "but I feel like a whole new man in this getup!"
The civilian clothes they had donned when they reached the warehouse weren't new—some of them even had patches here and there—but they were clean and in much better shape than the uniforms the eight men had been wearing.
Colonel Lancaster, as befitted his rank, was dressed in the only real suit, including a flat-crowned planter's hat. Other than his ramrod-stiff backbone, in those clothes and with his florid face and thick side-whiskers, he might have been mistaken for a plantation owner.
The other men were dressed more like overseers on that hypothetical plantation, in boots, whipcord trousers, linsey-woolsey shirts, and leather vests. They wore an assortment of headgear ranging from broad-brimmed hats to tweed caps.
Luke had snagged one of the hats he thought made him look like a plainsman. Such men rode through the Ozarks from time to time, on their way to or from the vast western frontier, and Luke had always admired them.
His revolver was tucked in the waistband of the trousers. Most enlisted men didn't carry handguns, but since scouts often had to do some close-quarters fighting, they had been issued revolvers along with their rifles. Luke considered himself pretty handy with either weapon, and with a knife, too, for that matter.
He didn't think about it very often, but he had killed quite a few men during his time in the army. It was war, of course. That was what soldiers did. He had killed more than his share up close, though, sneaking up on Yankee pickets and slitting their throats or driving his knife into their backs so the blade penetrated the heart. He had felt the hot gush of enemy blood on his hand, heard the death rattle, and borne the weight of a suddenly limp body that had to be lowered to the ground quietly. He had seen the terrible damage gunshots did to human flesh, especially at close range.
Those memories didn't haunt his sleep, but they were part of him and always would be.
Wiley Potter, Keith Stratton, Ted Casey, and Josh Richards clustered together near one of the wagons. Luke saw them casting furtive glances at the canvas-covered cargo in the back of the vehicle.
"Like dogs lickin' their chops over a big ol' soup bone, eh?" Remy said quietly as he came up beside Luke.
"You can't blame them. I sent some mighty hard looks at those wagons myself. I've never been this close to so much gold." Luke snorted. "Hell, back home I might go as long as a year without seeing as much as a double eagle."
"I suppose I'm more accustomed to it, seeing as I spent a lot of time in the gambling halls in New Orleans. The money always flowed freely there."
"Maybe so," Luke said. "Where I come from, money flows more like quicksand."
Dale asked Lancaster, "Are we going to be riding on the wagons, Colonel?"
"We'll have a driver and a guard on each wagon," Lancaster explained. "The other four of you, plus myself, will be on horseback and serve as outriders."
"Horses sound good," Casey said. "I always hankered to ride something better than an old mule. They turned me down for the cavalry because that was all I had."
"You'll take turns at the jobs, at least starting out. I don't care who does what, though. You can settle that among yourselves."
Dale commented, "I wouldn't mind handling one of the teams. I used to drive a freight wagon before the war."
"So did I," Edgar offered. "I reckon I'll take the other driver's job starting out."
None of the other men volunteered to ride on the wagons as guards. Luke and Remy looked at each other. Luke shrugged, and Remy said, "We'll take the wagons, too, Colonel."
Lancaster nodded. "Fine." He looked to Potter, Stratton, Casey, and Richards. "You men will find your horses in the alley behind the warehouse. Bring them around front and mount up. You can fetch my mount as well." He motioned to the uniformed soldiers who had been waiting in the warehouse, guarding the gold shipment. "Open the doors."
Excerpted from LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2012 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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