The first story in a fiery new series about the west’s most dangerous boomtown, and the reformed outlaw who risks his life to keep it safe . . .
RATTLESNAKE WELLS, WYOMING
In the dark shadow of the Prophecy Mountains lies the ramshackle town of Rattlesnake Wells, where dreamers come to make their fortunes, and desperados come to die. The streets of this little settlement are slick with mud and stained with blood, and it will fall to Bob Hatfield to sweep them clean. The town marshal, Hatfield has a young man’s face, but his eyes are those of a killer. He is a good man, but he has a secret that weighs on his soul.
In Texas, Hatfield was known as the Devil’s River Kid, one of the most feared outlaws to ever ride the Lone Star State. He fled Texas after a showdown with a corrupt rancher turned bloody, and he vowed to start a new life on the right side of the law. But when some ghosts from Hatfield’s past catch up to him, this gunslinging marshal will risk his life to protect the savage town known as Rattlesnake Wells.
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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Later, Bob Hatfield would remember how still and peaceful that day had started out. A misleading omen, he'd come to reflect, in sharp contrast to the trouble that was soon to rear its ugly head. But, at the start, there was no hint of anything like that ...
As usual, Bob rose with the sun. After he dressed, he headed for the kitchen. Consuela, his pretty housekeeper and cook, already had a pot of coffee brewed and waiting. They exchanged "good mornings" and she poured him his first cup of the day. He barely had it drunk halfway before she placed in front of him his customary breakfast of two boiled eggs and a generous scoop of spicy fried sausage wrapped in a soft tortilla shell.
They didn't talk much as he ate. He was contemplating his day. She, having already gotten her own breakfast out of the way, was busying herself with the start of the day's remaining tasks that would keep the household running smoothly and efficiently.
Once he'd finished his meal, Bob poured himself a second mug of coffee. He doctored it with two heaping spoonfuls of sugar and a splash of milk, the single time he treated himself in that manner as opposed to the numerous other cups of mud — some of which were darn near, depending on the source — he took black during the course of most days.
"Shall I wake Bucky now?" Consuela asked.
"Yeah, reckon it's that time. He needs to get up and get ready for school. I don't want him giving you any sass about it after I've left, so tell him to snap to it and come see me before I have to go."
Bucky was Bob's ten-year-old son. Priscilla, Bucky's mother and Bob's late wife, had passed away close to three years earlier, shortly after they'd arrived in Wyoming Territory upon relocating from Texas. She was never far from Bob's thoughts, but each morning when it was time to roust Bucky, she became even more prominent in his mind. He could imagine the smile on her face when she looked at their strong, rambunctious son in the light of each new day.
Bob wasn't a deeply religious man, yet he had enough faith to believe that Priscilla was looking on and watching their son grow. But it wasn't like she was there to do it ... where they could see her in return and all could experience such things together. The way it was supposed to be.
Bob carried his mug out to the front porch and sat down near one end so that the morning sunlight slanted in under the porch roof and washed over him, a ritual he followed whenever the weather was nice. Not a breath of air stirred. The leftover chill of night lingered at the early hour, but Bob knew it wouldn't be long before that burned away and the early spring day on tap would be another pleasant one.
He took a long pull of coffee and lowered his arm, exposing the badge pinned to the front of his shirt. It glinted brightly in the sun. As the marshal of Rattlesnake Wells, Bob would take all the pleasant days he could get — not only weather-wise, but in other ways, too. In fact, the way the town was growing and flexing its muscles, an occasional bout of lousy weather sometimes helped tame down other kinds of unpleasantness.
Rattlesnake Wells, it happened, was in the early middle stages of being a boomtown.
Originally it was just a sleepy, peaceful little community. Growth had come from emigrants branching off the Oregon Trail and settling near where they found plentiful water in the form of several spring-fed "wells." Numerous rattlesnake nests also found in the area gave the place its rather unbecoming name, which stuck even after most of the rattler population had been eliminated. Once the town had taken root, so did a handful of small but supportive surrounding ranches — horse and cattle — finding dependable markets supplying Army forts throughout the territory.
And so it was for a number of years. But then some fool struck gold in the Prophecy Mountains that loomed just to the northwest and, almost overnight, the quiet, sleepy little community turned into a boomtown. First came the swarm of eager, determined gold seekers ready to dig and work and sweat for their reward. Following them came the next swarm — the easy profit seekers, the hucksters and shysters and swindlers, the pimps and whores and pickpockets, the petty thieves and the skimmers looking for every kind of score they were willing to dirty their souls for ... but not their hands.
As marshal, it was Bob Hatfield's job to keep a lid on all of it.
From his porch, he could look down a gentle slope and see pretty much the whole spread of the town. When he and his family had first moved in, the house had been somewhat outlying off the north end of the original layout of homes and businesses and streets that ran at a slight angle from northeast to southwest. These days it was generally referred to as Old Town.
The mishmash of structures and shelters that had hastily sprung up as a result of the boom — tent saloons, gambling joints, greasy spoon eateries, equipment suppliers, boardinghouses, and whore cribs — were all crowded in a single row angling northwest toward the Prophecy Mountains, where the gold had been found. The more recent addition was naturally called New Town and it ran along what had been dubbed Gold Avenue. The combined overall effect was a town laid out in two converging angles that came to a point, like an arrowhead, aiming almost directly at Bob's house.
More than once, he wondered about the omenlike significance of that, too.
As he was enjoying the final sips of his coffee, the house door opened behind him and Bucky came out onto the porch. He squinted fiercely at the bright morning light and stood a minute, letting his eyes adjust. It gave Bob a chance to gaze at him with loving eyes for a long moment without causing the kind of embarrassment a ten-year-old boy was apt to feel under such scrutiny.
Like his father, Bucky had a thatch of thick red hair — uncombed and spectacularly tousled at the moment — and a solid, square-shouldered frame. He was already big for his age and would no doubt grow to equal or maybe exceed Bob's six-one height. In fact, most of Bucky's features — and mannerisms — were stamped from a pattern mighty similar to his dad's, which shouldn't have come as a surprise for any youngster so proud of and focused on his only parent.
It was mainly in the boy's eyes where Bob could see Priscilla's traits. A depth of kindness and gentleness was there — as yet untapped by its restless, energetic young host. Bob hoped that would shine through as Bucky matured and make him a better, more rounded — though not softened — man. It's what Priscilla had done for Bob, from the outside in, and it appeared as if she'd instilled it inside their son right from the jump.
"Consuela said you wanted to see me, Pa?"
Bob arched an eyebrow. "What? No 'good morning'?"
Bucky looked slightly confused for a second. "Well, uh ... sure. Good morning, Pa."
"That's better. Good morning to you, too, son."
Bucky continued to look a bit confused and uncertain, not fully woken up yet.
Bob smiled. "That's all I wanted. Just to see you, say good morning, and spend a couple minutes before I have to head off. I may be in for a long day, so I'm not sure when I'll be showing up for supper. The train's making a special trip in today to pick up a herd of horses that the Bar Double J boys are bringing in to ship off and sell to the Army. After the hay-burners are loaded up and their jobs are done for the day, you know how frisky some of those wranglers can get when they haven't been to town in a while. Since this is a special run, I figure the train's gonna do a quick turnaround, so I don't think the crew will be staying in town overnight like they sometimes do. Can't ever be certain about that, though. If they change their minds and stay, they could turn out to be feeling a mite frisky, too. With them, how frisky they are usually depends on how long it's been since last payday."
"Aw, I wouldn't worry too much about the Bar Double J bunch," Bucky said, waving a hand dismissively. "They're mostly old codg — uh, what I mean to say is that, unless they've hired on some new hands, it's usually older fellas who show up and hardly ever cause any trouble. They tell good stories about the old days, though, when they're sitting in the back of Krepdorf's store playing cribbage or checkers. Not to say that some jug passin' don't go on, too, while they're back there."
"I won't even ask how you know about the stories and the jug passin' in the back of Krepdorf's," Bob said, putting his eyebrow to work in another skeptical arch. "But I will accept your reassurance about not having to worry much about the Bar Double J fellas. So, except for keeping an eye on the train crew long enough to see what they've got in mind, maybe my day will be nice and uneventful after all."
"I don't know much about the train crew, Pa. I can't help you there," Bucky said earnestly.
"Is that all, Pa? Consuela's making me oatmeal for breakfast and then I gotta finish getting ready for school. I probably ought to get back inside."
"Yeah, I guess we both got other things to take care of" — Bob paused thoughtfully — "although, now that you mentioned school ... we haven't talked for a few days about how you're doing there. You got anything we need to go over?"
"Uh. Gee. No, Pa, not really."
"That geography stuff you were wrestlin' with? You on top of that?"
"I think so."
"You think so? Ain't you got a big test coming up in the next day or so?"
"Yeah ... Uh, actually it's today."
"That's what I thought. Are you ready for it? And don't say you think so."
Bucky heaved a tormented sigh. "I been studying really hard, Pa. Truly I have. But Mr. Fettleford loves that stuff so much that he rambles on for hours it seems about countries and customs all over the place — way more than just the ones we're studying on — and pretty soon I get all the names and maps so scrambled in my head I don't know one from the other."
Bob could feel his son's pain. Nobody hated school studies more than he had as a boy ... but he was in a different role and had to hold the line. "Well, you've got to keep trying," was his parental advice. "Pay attention, mind your p's and q's, and do the best you can. I can't ask for more. If I hear you tried to weasel out of going by playing on Consuela's sympathy after I leave, or if I find out you played hooky — that would be a whole different matter."
"I know better than to try anything like that, Pa."
"I know you do. I was just reminding you of it," said Bob, smiling, reaching out to tousle Bucky's already-tousled head of hair. "Okay. Speaking of p's and q's, here's a pop quiz. Name me a country that starts with P and one that starts with Q."
Bucky's eyes widened and he looked a little panicked. "Uh ... Portugal! Portugal, for P."
"Good. Now Q."
Bucky's expression scrunched with concentration. Then, "How about ... Cuba?"
Bob shook his head. "Nice try, pal. But I don't think so."
"You sure? It sounds right, like it could start with a q."
"I may not be the world's greatest speller, but I'm good enough to know that sounds and spellings don't always match. And Cuba don't start with no q."
"Wait! I know — the Quater!"
It was Bob's expression that scrunched up. "What?"
"You know. The Quater. That circle around the world that divides ..." Bucky's voice trailed off. "Never mind. I remember now ... that's the E-quator, and it really ain't even a country. I guess I was reachin' a mite too hard."
Not liking to see the boy look so crestfallen, and frankly unable to think of a country that started with Q himself, Bob said, "Tell you what. Q's a tough one. You worry about your test first, then try to come up with an answer for Q. Check your maps at school or maybe even ask Mr. Fettleford. We can take it up again this evening. Deal?"
Bucky looked relieved. "Deal, Pa."
Bob held out his emptied coffee mug. "Here, take this to Consuela when you go in, okay? Tell her I've got to get going. I'm running late."
"Okay. I'll tell her."
Bob gave his son a quick hug and another hair tousle, then stepped off the porch and headed down the slope toward town.
The sturdy log building that housed the marshal's office and jail was located nearly to the south end of Front Street, the main drag of Old Town, on the corner of Front and Wyoming streets. Only four streets crossed Front, each running a few blocks, serving private homes and a pair of boardinghouses. The structures lining Front Street made up the business district.
At the early hour, except for a few shopkeepers stirring around inside their stores, getting ready to open, hardly any activity appeared on the streets. As Bob strode down Front Street and drew even with Bullock's Saloon, Rattlesnake Wells' oldest and most popular watering hole, Mike Bullock stepped out of his place with a rolled-up floor mat tucked under each thick arm. He was a stout individual with a clean-shaven head, beer-keg torso, and arms as big around as most men's legs. He habitually wore a bowler hat clamped so tight onto his bald dome many claimed it could never be knocked off, even in the fiercest barroom brawl ... of which Mike was a veteran many times over.
"Mornin', Mike," Bob greeted.
"Same to you, Marshal." Mike dropped one of the mats and unfurled the other, preparing to give it a good shaking out. He paused, looking skyward, and said, "Mighty still this morning. Like the dead quiet you sometimes see ahead of a big storm."
"Could be," Bob said, also glancing skyward. "Ain't a cloud in the sky, though."
"Maybe not. But you never know what's coming over the horizon."
"True enough. It's probably just as well we don't."
"You really think so?" Mike said rhetorically. "I don't. I like to know if trouble's coming. Then I can be prepared."
Bob grinned. "Best thing for that, I reckon, is to just stay prepared all the time."
Mike balled one of his mallet-sized fists and held it up. "That's exactly what I do ... with this baby right here."
Bob walked on a few steps, then stopped and turned back. "Say, Mike. Can you think of the name of a country that starts with the letter q?"
Mike stopped shaking one of the mats. "Huh? A country where?"
"Anywhere. Anywhere around the globe. It's a question that, er, came out of Bucky's schoolwork."
Mike grunted. "Boy, you picked the wrong fella to ask about school learnin'. I never set foot in a classroom all my days. My old man didn't believe in it. He said payin' attention while you was livin' life was all the schoolin' anybody ever needed." He jabbed a thumb to indicate the saloon behind him. "So all my schoolin' has come from right in there — actually from my old man's beer hall in Brooklyn through a couple dozen other joints in between to my own place right here. And, boy, have I learned a thing or three ... but I don't know no countries startin' with the letter q."
"It was just a question, Mike. Don't worry about it. If you do think of something, let me know."
"I'll ask around as customers come in and out today." A rumble of laughter rolled out of his chest. "I guarantee I'll get answers for you. They may not be right, but you can bet there'll be some wild ones."
Bob shook his head, not holding out hope for much in the way of accurate information, and continued on down the street. He hadn't gone far before he stopped again, for a very different reason. He heard a sound unmistakable to his ears. Gunshots. Distant and sporadic at first, but quickly growing louder and more frequent.
Pop! Poppity-pop! Bang! Boom!
It was coming from the north, from the newer section of town, and sounded like all hell was busting loose.
Bob wheeled and moved in that direction. Measured steps at first, then lengthier and faster. The Colt Peacemaker riding in the old but well-oiled holster on his right hip flashed to his fist, and he carried it out front as he broke into a run.
Mike Bullock dropped the mat he was shaking out and took a step out into the street, craning his neck to look north as Bob raced by. "What in hell's going on?"
"I don't know, but it don't sound good," Bob called back over his shoulder. "Ring the fire bell. If the shooting keeps up, send me some help!"
Excerpted from "Rattlesnake Wells, Wyoming"
Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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