William W. Johnstone is the premier chronicler of the often lawless and violent American West—and of the kind of iron-willed men who defined a nation. Now, he returns with a novel of dangerous loyalties, forgotten friends, and an enemy whose time has come . . .
Out Of The Fight—And Into The Fire
A deadly confrontation with the outlaw who murdered his wife has left Frank Morgan a wounded shell of his former self—until a woman he once knew calls him back to Parker County. Married to another man, Mercy Monfore has a hold on Morgan that cannot be denied. Now, she needs him to take on a dangerous gang—with the law in Parker County set against him and only a young Texas Ranger on his side. But as a battle explodes, and the past pulls at Morgan’s soul, he might just miss the gravest danger of all: a manhunter who’s ridden long and far to stake his claim to fame—by planting Frank Morgan in the ground.
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The Last Gunfighter: Manhunt
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"Dying ought to be something a man does in private," Frank Morgan said, his back propped up against three feather pillows. Most of the stuffing had long since worked its way out of the canvas ticking and it was bunched up behind him in a grimy wad.
Morgan stared, blank-faced, through the dusty window at the bleak world outside. A frigid wind had blown for weeks across the flat west Texas plain, with no more than a fence post and a few strands of wire to stop it. The wind rattled the rippled glass windowpane and sent a strong enough draft through the dingy hotel room to flicker the flame on the single beeswax candle at the bedside table.
The gunfighter watched as another tumbleweed piled its brittle gray skeleton against a dozen others along a fence row outside. He shook his head and let it fall to one side so he could look the young Texas Ranger in the eye.
"I'd be much obliged to you, Beaumont, if you'd just clear out of here and let me be alone when the time comes."
Beaumont groaned to his feet. It was a weary, bone-tired groan, much too old for a man like him. He bit his lip and joined Frank in staring out the cheap glass of the filthy window.
"I heard yesterday that a pretty whore named Rita lived up here in this very room a few years back." He stood close, only inches from the window, talking more to it than to Frank. "They say she got so plumb sick and tired of tryin' to look out these stinkin' little windows that she rented her a room over at the Claremont instead." The stout little Texas Ranger turned slowly to look at Frank. When the gunfighter said nothing, he turned back toward the window. "Poor thing died of consumption last year, but at least she had a decent view toward the end. I reckon a whore spends enough time cooped up in her room she deserves a decent piece of glass."
"I reckon," Frank said. He let his eyes fall shut. "I think I'll take a nap for a while if it wouldn't disturb you too awful much."
Beaumont held a piece of heavy yellow paper rolled up in a tube in his hand. "Don't you even want to take a peek at what I brought?"
Morgan had to give the boy credit. He'd stuck by him for weeks, trying to cheer him up, trying to nursemaid him through the depths of despair that followed the confrontation with the killer Ephraim Swan. Frank could tell the poor Ranger was worried to the point of vexation — but he couldn't bring himself to care.
Beaumont read him the paper every day, but there was no news worth hearing. He tried to engage Morgan in card games, but even when Frank held a winning hand, he folded anyway. The exasperated Ranger even hired a girl to come in and sing. Sing she did, everything from beautiful arias to bawdy barroom ballads — but she'd reminded Morgan of Dixie's daughters.
Now the boy had some other notion of a surprise rolled up in his hand. Some little something or another he thought would salve Morgan's tormented soul and somehow make him forget about the brutal murder of his innocent wife, something that would set everything right in the world again.
Since Dixie's death, Frank Morgan had felt like little more than an empty husk of a man. If he walked outside, he knew he'd blow away like one of the passing tumbleweeds on the cold west Texas wind.
In the weeks since the standoff with Swan, Morgan had been slow to recover physically. He hardly ate more than a nibble, and spent all his waking hours gazing out the tiny window in his rented room.
The doctor insisted there was no reason why he shouldn't make a full recovery and regain his complete health, but Morgan knew he was only a shadow of his former self. The weeks turned into months, and though his body continued to mend, he knew the part of him that was really alive was slipping away with each passing day.
His long, dark hair had more silver to it than ever and it stuck out in all directions, depending on how he slept. He kept his pistol handy on a peg beside the bed, and threatened to shoot anyone who came near him with a comb. A heavy matted tangle of salt-and-pepper beard couldn't hide the hollows of his cheeks or the sunken crescents under his eyes. Frank Morgan looked and smelled of death.
The man who couldn't be beaten had simply given up.
Morgan's cracked lips barely parted when he spoke. "Velda was the only one with brains around here. She left when the gettin' was good." His once-piercing whisper was now no more than a careless mumble. "I wouldn't want to sit around and watch a used-up old gunfighter rot away any more than she did."
"Her leavin' had nothing to do with you, Frank. Velda just never could get used to settlin' down to a respectable life." Beaumont gave a shrug and chuckled. His lips pulled back forming an easy smile. He fell for women fast, but appeared to get over them with equal speed. "Last I heard she'd run off with a sassy gambler from Waco who had more money than he had good sense. Now, you quit with all this talk about rottin'. The doc says you're gettin' better in spite of your grumpy nature. A man like you is too tough to be done in by a little blood leakage."
Morgan scoffed, staring up at the leak-stained ceiling. "Son, the things you don't know about a man like me could fill a mighty big book."
Beaumont rolled the yellow paper tighter in his hands like a club and used it to point at Morgan. "I know plenty, you old cob. I grew up on Frank Morgan stories. My pa used to tell me all about your escapades when I was just a sprout. My only aim was to grow up to be just like Frank Morgan. I grew up idolizing you ... and if you'd get up off your hind end I still would."
Frank waved away the compliment as if it were a horsefly. "I don't much care to be emulated; it's too damned burdensome a responsibility."
The Ranger scooted his chair closer and shrugged off the comment. His face brimmed over with the enthusiasm of his normally positive nature — like a wide-eyed puppy, excited about everything. "Listen here, Morgan, the bubbles downstairs in Mrs. Pratt's weather-guessing glass say we can expect some clearing tomorrow and some warmer weather, I'd expect." He spread the paper flat out in front of him so Frank could read it. "I got something here that might be just the cure for what ails you."
Morgan scanned the yellow flier. A big drawing of two crossed Colt Peacemakers decorated the top third of the paper. It was tattered at the corners from hanging on a post in the screaming wind. He gave it a quick look and shook his head. "I don't care to enter any shooting contest." He lowered an eyebrow. "I been in enough of those for ten lifetimes."
"Don't have to enter it," Beaumont said. "Just come and watch me. Cheer me along while I shoot. It'd do you good to get out." For such a tough Texas lawman, the boy had eyes that pleaded as sadly as a puppy. "What do you say?"
Morgan took up the paper and read it over more thoroughly at arm's length. "Potter County spring shooting championship," he said under his breath. "Says here they have cash prizes. You thinking you might earn yourself a little grubstake and win Miss Velda back from that fool gambler?"
"Why don't you forget about her? She's gone," Beaumont said. He sat still, staring hard, waiting for an answer. "Come on, Morgan. What do you say?"
Frank folded the small poster in half lengthwise and handed it back. "Why are you still here?"
Beaumont slumped forward in his chair, all the breath going out of him at once. "I don't know myself, Morgan, the way you're actin'. There's at least three men in Amarillo who'd shoot you there in your bedclothes just to say they were the one who captured the honor of killing the great Frank Morgan. None of 'em give a tinker's damn whether you're asleep in your bed or facin' them on the street."
The Ranger got to his feet again and set his teeth in grim determination. "I figured that after what you did for me, I owed you a little watchin' over. You and my pa were friends — good friends from what he used to tell me." He rubbed a calloused hand over his boyish face. "I gotta tell you, though, I'm tuckered out, Frank, and I've got a long ton of other things I could be doin'. If you really do want me gone, then that's what I'll do."
Frank could see the young man had about given up. He knew he stood to watch the only friend he had for miles walk out the door. But the fact that he decided to get up and make a go of it had little to do with him being left alone. Morgan knew about loneliness and most times he relished it. It was something the boy had said that made Morgan pull himself up. It reached out and shook him is what it did.
"I suppose I could come and watch you show up a bunch of upstarts with your marksmanship," Morgan said softly. He managed a weak grin and motioned Beaumont closer with a flick of his hand. "But son, you'd better adjust your windage and elevation. Aimin' to be anything like me is what I'd call a misspent endeavor."CHAPTER 2
When Morgan scraped away his grizzled beard and trimmed back his wayward hair, he looked like he'd lost a tenth of his body weight. He was skinny as a picket rail. His faded blue shirt hung off his body like rags on a scarecrow. He pulled a heavy wool coat tight at the collar to keep the harsh Panhandle wind from going right through him.
Beaumont prattled on about the shooting contest, working off his nerves while Morgan got ready. His Peacemaker hung on a peg above the headboard of his bed. Morgan pulled the wide leather gun belt around his waist, and realized he'd need to punch another hole to keep it from ending up around his ankles.
Beaumont chuckled. "We got time to stop and get us some decent grub before the shootin' starts. Make sure you strap that gun on tight. There's a fierce wind a-blowin' out there and that pistol's liable to be the only thing anchoring you to the ground."
Morgan took his black felt hat off the wall peg and settled it down on his head. It felt good to have it on again — beyond that, it was the only piece of his former attire that still fit.
* * *
The short Texas Ranger hovered constantly, all the way to the café, wary of the half-dozen gunmen he said were waiting in the wings to challenge the infamous Frank Morgan. Beaumont made it clear with every word and gesture that even talking out loud about a challenge could earn a man a bullet.
Morgan took a seat near the back, facing the door. The waitress gave him an obligated grin and tapped her pencil on a piece of folded paper. She was pretty, but closer to Beaumont's age than Frank's. They ordered beefsteak and a pot of strong coffee. It wasn't long in coming.
"You're making me feel like a damned kid, lookin' after me this way." Morgan sucked in air through clenched teeth while he applied a liberal layer of black pepper to his slice of meat. "I been taking care of myself long enough to get a handle on how it's done, I reckon."
Beaumont's eyes softened and he leaned across the table, gesturing with his fork. "Look, Frank. You still got a ways to go before you're up to snuff again. I know of at least six desperados who are waiting for the opportunity to call you out. That don't count the dozen I ain't even heard about. You should sit back and take it easy."
"I might surprise you, youngster," Morgan said. "I been on my own for a good many years now — more than I care to count...."
"I ain't sayin' you can't. I'm just sayin' you oughta be careful. You should ..."
Morgan leaned back in his chair and stared into his cup. "Look, son, I appreciate everything you're doing for me. You've stuck by me and I know I'm acting the ass. You keep reminding me that I got so much to live for — but let me give you a little piece of advice. No matter how much you think you got to live for, don't try to hold on to it too tight. You're liable to wear yourself out just hangin' on. Sometimes you just gotta relax and take what comes at you."
Beaumont nodded, chewing on the thought along with a piece of beefsteak.
"Now, who are these men who'd like to face me while I'm on the mend?"
"Same story, different names." The Ranger gave a weary groan and nodded over his right shoulder. "See that broodin' kid over there by the bar with the withered right hand all drawed up like an eagle claw? He goes by the moniker of Lefty Cummins. Blames the whole world for his defect. He's been out of prison a grand total of three weeks for killing a poor sodbuster who looked at his crippled hand wrong. Did five years for manslaughter and the first thing he does as a free man is slide into Amarillo lookin' to brace you."
"Too bad." Frank pushed his plate away and smiled. He felt better than he had in months. To his surprise he'd eaten the entire steak, and even felt the urge to gnaw on the bone.
The front door to the café was propped open with a big chunk of flint, and a crisp spring breeze drifted in off the street. Morgan drew in a lungful and stood, slapping Beaumont on the back. Deep down he knew he was ready. He wasn't looking for a fight, but he was ready nonetheless. "I reckon he'll dog along after me for a little while yet," Morgan said under his breath.
Frank threw some coins on the table and started for the door — and Lefty Cummins.
"Be seein' you around, I reckon," Morgan said with a smile as he came up beside the would-be gunfighter. He paused at the bar a moment, looked into the kid's shifting eyes.
Morgan held another gold coin up between his thumb and forefinger so the bartender could see it, then placed it down on the scratched wooden counter with a snap.
"I'm buyin' him one more of whatever he's havin'." Morgan moved slowly toward the door, listening and waiting for the kid's next move.
Cummins turned and stared over his shoulder, but kept his gun hand wrapped around his glass, both elbows on the bar. He said nothing. This one still had a while to go yet before he was ripe enough to fall off the tree and get his self stomped.
* * *
"I wish I never would have shown you that damned handbill," Beaumont said an hour later, pulling his jacket up around his neck against a biting north wind.
Morgan gave him a taciturn smile. "That's just the old nerves talking, son. I think you're going to enjoy this."
"I'm not worried about the competition. That's gonna be fine. It's all the folks flittin' around there so well heeled that's got me thinkin'." Beaumont eyed two skinny boys in their early teens as they rushed past in the gangly-knees-and-elbows way boys that age were prone to move. One carried a forked peashooter with India rubber flippers. The other had a rusty Colt Dragoon as long as his thigh bone strapped to his side in an old Confederate holster with the flap cut off.
"Hell, Frank, even the kiddies are running around with horse pistols. Everybody and his brother wants to prove himself against Frank Morgan, and here we are aimin' to saunter in amongst 'em while they're hopped up on Prickly Ash Bitters and gunpowder fumes. I just now have you convinced to try and live. This may not have been the smartest notion that ever hit me in the head."
Morgan drew in a lungful of the sharp air and changed the subject. "Look how well these streets are laid out. Straight as a damned Comanche arrow."
"Yeah," Beaumont grumbled, still chewing on his problem at hand. He turned up his nose as though he'd smelled a skunk. "The country's so flat there was nothin' to get in the way while they were building the place — except maybe a longhorn cow."
It was impossible to escape the salt-sour smell of cattle on the wind. The rangy beasts were everywhere mooing and crowding and standing on mountains of their own crap. Frank had heard someone observe that the population of Amarillo was somewhere around five hundred human souls, half that many dogs, and fifteen thousand head of cattle.
The Potter County Spring Fair and Shooting Exposition was set up at the local grounds at the far edge of town adjacent to one of the many feedlots and holding pens.
It reminded Morgan of a Wild West show he'd seen once in Missouri, complete with sad-faced Apache Indians wearing Cheyenne war bonnets and nimble young women doing cartwheels on horseback wearing puffy-legged bloomers.
Cigar and gun smoke mixed with the odor of burnt sugar, cooking meat, and the nearby feedlots. Some of the older folks wore buckskins and other costumes from their past, dressing as they had when they were young and trying to remind themselves that although Amarillo was relatively tame, the wild and woolly West was still only a few steps away.
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter: Manhunt by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 2004 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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