In his authentic, powerfully told tales of the American frontier, William W. Johnstone has defined the Western hero and established an action-packed series that ranks among the bestselling in print. In this rugged new novel, Johnstone sets his sights on the one place that was too wild even for the Wild West . . .
No Man’s Land
Kansas doesn’t want it. Neither does Texas. The 35-mile wide strip of land destined to become the Oklahoma panhandle is a place unlike any other on the frontier: with no laws, no rules, and a powerful attraction for killers, looters, and fugitives. Frank Morgan, a gunfighter feared by all and hated by some, has been warned to stay the hell out of “the strip.” But warnings never did work well on Morgan, and he’s more determined than ever to stay—when an ambush nearly takes his life. Soon, in a remote cabin in the heart of No Man’s Land, Morgan will wake up to discover that he has just cause and a burning need to go out and fight. All he lacks is an ally—in a place where all his enemies want him dead . . .
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The Last Gunfighter: No Man's Land
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2004 William W Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Frank heard the wagons long before they came into view, and he smelled them before he heard them. The odor of soap and other fancy stinkum hit his nose hard in contrast to the periodic whiff of cottonwood on the windswept Kansas plains. Dog, the scruffy cur that sat by his side, smelled it too and whined softly, looking up at his master. Soap meant women, and more often than not, women meant trouble.
Frank sat on the knife ridge overlooking what passed for a trail, and watched the slow procession of wagons struggle single-file out of a low draw to the east. Five big, fine Conestoga prairie schooners, each pulled by six of the most handsome mules Frank had ever seen. Stout, red Missouri mules. A lone rider, likely the wagon master, rode scout about a hundred yards ahead of the lead team.
Five mounted men flanked the train, three on one side of the wagons, two on the other. Each man carried a rifle across the pommel of his saddle, ready for use.
When the lead rider drew within hailing distance, Frank lifted his rains and urged Stormy, his big Appaloosa, down the incline to intercept him. Rocks and loose gravel skittered around the horse's hooves as they slid down the hillside.
The scout spotted Frank and lifted his left arm, halting the train. His right hand dropped to the butt of his pistol.
Frank reined up, raised his hands, and smiled. "No need for that, friend," he called. "I mean you no harm."
"State your business," the scout shouted back, a little louder than Frank thought necessary. He was no more than twenty yards away.
"Just some company on the trail. Maybe some coffee and a speck of conversation when you decide to make camp for the evening."
"You alone?" The wagon master surveyed the open ridgeline above them, shielding his narrow eyes with the flat of his hand.
Frank shrugged. "I am what you see, friend."
"Look at the dog, Mama." A girl of five or six with blond braids stuck her head out of the canvas flap on the lead wagon.
"Does he bite?" another called from the driver's seat of the next wagon in line. This one was older, well into her teens, with frizzled red hair the color of a carrot.
Dog sat on his haunches beside Stormy, studying the girls. He didn't move.
"Only bites if you try and do him harm," Frank called out, tipping his hat to the young ladies. "Told you there were women out here," he whispered under his breath to Dog.
"We're about to find a place to make camp," the wagon master said, trotting up next to Frank. "You familiar with this country?"
"Not too much. Been heading west for the better part of a week, staying out of the strip."
The wagon master turned in the saddle to look around him. "We're out of the strip, I think."
Frank nodded. "By about ten miles, I'd say."
"Good. That's a blessing anyhow. You got a name?"
"I do." Frank smiled and watched for a change in expression. "Frank Morgan."
The wagon master looked like somebody had pulled the plug and drained all the color out of him. He took a deep breath to steady himself. When he finally found his voice, he shouted back to the train. "We got Frank Morgan here paying us a visit!"
That got everyone's attention. Those in the wagons nearest the two men sat and stared in silence at the West's most famous gunfighter.
"I'm not on the prod for anyone," Frank told the other man, hoping to settle his nerves a little. "I'm just drifting, seeing the country."
"You plannin' on riding along with us, Mr. Morgan?"
Frank shrugged. "Unless you have an objection." There was something about the wagon boss that didn't fit with his smile. He looked Frank over like he was sizing him up for a fight. His left eyebrow was crooked and white as a sheet. A thin scar ran up through the middle of it, crossed his forehead, and disappeared again under his hat. It made the man look like he was in a state of a perpetual scowl.
"You'd be welcome." The man held out a hand. "Steve Wilson."
Frank shook the friendship hand, and then fell in beside the other man on point as the wagons began to lumber along behind them again.
"Fine-looking wagons," Frank remarked. He began the sizing-up process he did when he met anyone new: height, weight, skill with a horse, nerve, demeanor, and the small, almost imperceptible things that you didn't see unless you were watching carefully — it was what had kept him alive for so long. This Wilson character seemed mighty preoccupied with something.
"Huh?" Wilson finally said.
"The wagons," Frank repeated. "With the West building up since the war and the railroads coming in all over, I don't see wagons as much as I used to. These look to be good ones."
"Aren't they, though," Wilson said snapping out of his stupor. "All of them special built in Indiana for this trip. They've served us well. Got us this far without too much trouble."
"Where you headed?"
"Colorado. In another week or so we'll turn north some and then it's on to our new home."
"Farmers?" Frank caught Wilson staring at the Colt Peacemaker on his hip.
Wilson nodded. "You bet. And we're good farmers too. It's in our blood. It's just getting too crowded back in Indiana. We all wanted some space where we could stretch out some. Build a place to call our own."
Frank looked at the man's hands. They were strong hands, but didn't have the calluses he'd expect of a farmer. Wilson had been on the trail a while, though, so Frank dismissed the notion that the man might be lying.
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Frank said. "I'm partial to the wide-open spaces myself."
"That's a fine lookin' horse you're ridin', Mr. Morgan. I don't believe I ever seen one quite like it."
"Appaloosa, Mr. Wilson. Nez Percé Indians breed them."
Wilson shook his head. "Beautiful animal. Very striking."
They rode on for a few hundred yards without speaking. Only the creak of the wagons and groan of saddle leather broke the silence. As they topped a small rise, Frank pointed to a hollow below them.
"Looks like a nice little creek down there, Mr. Wilson. Plenty of firewood, forage for the stock, good spot for a camp, wouldn't you say?"
"Looks good to me too, Mr. Morgan. I'll ride back and tell the others."
"Before you do, Mr. Wilson, I'd like to propose a suggestion."
The man tensed and seemed to hold his breath at what might be in store. Frank couldn't be certain, but it almost looked like the man was getting ready to draw his gun.
"Let's you and me drop this mister business before we wear each other out. I'm Frank and you're Steve. What do you say?"
The wagon master relaxed and gave a nervous chuckle. "Sounds good to me, Frank. You got a deal."
Wilson spun his horse and trotted back over the ridge to bring up the wagons.
"What do you think, Dog?" Frank said as the other man rode out of sight. "Am I getting too jumpy or is that man hiding something?"
* * *
A few minutes later, Frank squatted by the creek and watched as Wilson positioned the wagons on a flat in a tight circle. The man appeared to know his business, Frank thought. Maybe he was just what he said he was.
The men in the group tended to the stock, while women drew water from the creek for cooking and drinking. Once the huge oak barrels on each wagon were filled, the children led the horses and mules down to drink. Frank helped gather wood for the cook fire, ignoring the surprised looks he received from the men. The women thanked him in hushed tones, and the children followed him around, the young boys trying to emulate his walk.
Once the stock was settled and the firewood was gathered, the women dragged out camp ovens and busied themselves with their mixing, stirring, and kneading. Rich smells of meat and gravy filled the still air as the men sat down to cups of fresh-brewed coffee and conversation.
Wilson introduced the families in turn: Able and Carolyn Brandon and their three children, two girls in their teens and a boy of about ten, each with freckles and frizzy carrot-colored hair, just like their mother. Weldon Freeman and his wife Paula, with three blond girls that stair-stepped from five to thirteen. Randall and Judith Fossman were the oldest couple, with two boys in their teens and twin fifteen-year-old girls. Harry and Betty Ellington had a boy and a girl, neither over ten years old. A sour-looking fellow named Virgil Carpenter and his family rounded out the group. He had two daughters and his wife's name was Dixie.
"My mother liked the name Dixie," Mrs. Carpenter explained with an easy smile, green eyes sparkling in the fire light.
"Well, I don't," Virgil said, spitting on the ground. "The word leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I call her by her middle name — Lou. Guess it comes from my time in the damn war. I was just a boy really, but I killed me my share of them damn stinkin' Rebs." Carpenter took a sip of his coffee and eyed Frank over the rim of his cup. "You fight in the war, Morgan?"
Frank nodded. "Yes, I did." He took Mrs. Carpenter's hand gently and shook it. "And I believe I'll call you Dixie." Before Carpenter could say anything else, Frank looked over at Mr. Brandon. "Y'all have some fine-looking mules, Able. Are they plow-broke?"
"Well, I ... suppose they are. I mean ... of course they're plow-broke."
Silence fell around the camp for a few moments. The women whispered among themselves.
"I suppose we should level with you, Frank," Wilson finally said. "You're a smart enough man to figure out ain't a one of us know anything about farming."
"Wilson ..." Weldon Freeman cocked his head to one side and gave the wagon master a tight-jawed look.
The wagon master waved him off. "Oh, it's all right. I know a bit more about the famous Mr. Morgan than you folks. Read a long article about him in the St. Louis paper a while back. Seems he's a rich man. Got more money than all of us put together. He's got no need to steal from us. Isn't that right, Frank?"
Frank nodded and took a swallow of coffee. "I reckon I'm worth considerable, for a fact."
Betty Ellington smoothed her apron out in her lap and began to fuss with her daughter's braids. "If you have so much money, why are you out here? Don't you have a real home?"
Frank grinned. Something that seemed so simple to him was always so hard for others to understand. "I have all this." He waved his hands at the sky and plains around them.
"But don't you want more?" Judith Fossman asked.
"I have a nice little place in the mountains west of here," Frank replied. "I reckon I'll retire there someday. Maybe raise cattle and a few horses. But that's years down the road."
"So for now you just ... drift?" Dixie Carpenter said.
Frank said, "I enjoy life."
"And take a life occasionally, so I hear," Randall Fossman said without any detectable note of malice in his statement.
"When I'm pushed." Frank turned to the wagon master. "So, if I may be so bold, if you're not going to Colorado to farm, what are you folks up to?"
Wilson leaned in close, his voice almost a whisper. "We're going to hunt for gold."
"Yes, sir," Able Brandon said. "Gold. In the Sangre de Cristo mountains west of Canyon City. According to Mr. Wilson, only a few people know about it. We plan to be among the first to stake our claims."
"I suppose that could be gold country, but it's also Ute country," Frank reminded them.
"Oh." Wilson waved his hand at the thought. "I hear tell the Utes aren't much of a problem to go fussin' over anymore. Besides, these folks are plenty capable. They can handle themselves very well."
"I see," Frank said, carefully studying the wagon master. The nagging feeling that something about Steve Wilson didn't ring true tugged at Frank again, but he let his suspicion slide for the moment. He sat quietly, drank his coffee, and listened to the others talk about their hopes for gold. The longer they talked, the more Frank wanted to know about Steve Wilson. He was beginning to take on the slimy air of a snake-oil salesman, and Frank wondered how much these poor folks had paid for his services.
"I know of a way that will take days off your trip," Frank offered finally. "If you're interested, that is."
"Oh, I don't think so," Wilson said, a little too quickly to suit Frank. "I know this way. I think it would be best to stick with the route we planned."
Frank shrugged. "Just a thought. Say, this is mighty good coffee. Mind if I have another cup?"
"Certainly, Mr. Morgan," Dixie said, leaning forward to fill his from the big camp pot.
"Much obliged, ma'am. I'm a coffee-drinkin' man, for a fact."
The woman smiled, her roundish face reflecting the firelight. She'd taken off her bonnet after sundown, and her auburn hair hung in loose locks around her cheeks. Her skin was pinked with the color of health. Though her eldest daughter was nearly grown, Dixie Carpenter retained the shapely figure of a much younger woman. Frank found himself wondering if sour old Virgil even noticed her figure anymore. He had yet to see the man smile.
Frank leaned back against a water barrel and listened. He was conscious of Dixie's eyes occasionally touching him, too often to be an accident. At first he made a few feeble attempts to avoid her gaze, but finally gave into it completely. There were questions on her face, and if Frank surmised correctly, a number of silent promises.
No one else appeared to notice the silent conversation. Frank bit his lip and tried to shake off the feelings that seized him. She was another man's wife. This could lead to nothing but trouble.
Able Brandon's voice rescued Frank from his own thoughts. "You plan on riding along with us for a ways, Mr. Morgan?"
"No." Frank said suddenly, surprising even himself. He watched to see Dixie's reaction. "I don't believe I'd better. Think I'll pull out come morning. But I want to warn you folks to stay out of the strip just south of us. It's a mean place full of all sorts of lowlifes."
"I plan to steer well clear of No Man's Land," Wilson said quickly. "Don't worry about us in that regard."
"I thought you were going to ride with us for a time, Mr. Morgan," Dixie said. She didn't look him in the eye.
"Oh, I changed my mind, Mrs. Carpenter," Frank said with a tired sigh. "That's the beauty of riding alone. A man can shift directions like the wind." He cut his eyes to Wilson. A look of relief had washed across the wagon master's drawn face and his bent, snowy eyebrow had come down some.
Something was definitely wrong here, Frank thought. Very wrong.
* * *
The next morning, just before dawn, as Frank knelt rolling up his blankets, Dixie Carpenter slipped through the mist beside the cottonwoods where he had camped.
"Mrs. Carpenter." He gave a smiling nod. "You're up awfully early."
"You said you were a coffee-drinking man. I hated for you to slip off without one last cup." The sun was not yet up, but she seemed to radiate light. "Sorry, it's a little strong, warmed up from last night."
Frank took the offered cup and sipped it. "It's wonderful and much appreciated. As is the company." He met the woman's eyes in the darkness. "Something on your mind, Mrs. Carpenter?"
"I thought you were going to call me Dixie." Her eyes held a hint of mischief.
"I did say that, for a fact." Frank chuckled. "So, Dixie, what besides your good manners and desire to serve me coffee brings you out so early this morning?"
"I don't trust that Mr. Wilson," the woman said bluntly.
Frank raised a brow at that and cocked back his hat. "What does your husband think about him?"
Dixie scoffed. "Virgil is basically a good man, but he's no smarter that this tree stump. Wilson has him completely hoodwinked. He thinks the man hung the moon and stars, but I know different."
Frank said nothing about his own concerns. "What makes you so suspicious?"
Dixie hesitated for a few seconds. "He's ... well, devious, Mr. Morgan."
"When I asked about other groups he's guided west, he became defensive, almost surly. I don't know how to explain it. He's ... oily is the best word I can think of."
Frank nodded and drained the last of his coffee. "He won't give you a straight answer?"
"No. He says everyone he's taken west is likely spread all over and he doesn't know where they are."
"Spread out could well be true."
"I know it could, but I still don't trust him. We're carrying a lot of money, Mr. Morgan." Her eyes narrowed, and she wrung her hands in front of her. "All of us are. We sold everything we had to come on this trip, and some of us took sizable sums from the bank. I'm not ashamed to admit it. I'm frightened something is going to happen."
Before Frank could reply, Steve Wilson's voice cut the early morning air.
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter: No Man's Land by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 2004 William W Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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