A lawman with a past. A gunman with a grudge. A blood-soaked massacre just waiting to happen. Welcome back to Rattlesnake Wells, Wyoming . . .
THIS TOWN AIN’T BIG ENOUGH
In a wild frontier boomtown like Rattlesnake Wells, it’s hard to know who to lock up, who to let out, and who to gun down. But as town marshal, it’s Bob Hatfield’s job to separate the sinners from the saints—or at least keep them from killing each other. Now there’s a new boy in town. He’s fresh out of prison. He swears he was wrongfully convicted of embezzling from his boss at the local mine. He wants to clear his name and reclaim the woman he loves. Hatfield wants to give the boy the benefit of the doubt. But when all hell starts to break loose—escalating from vicious saloon fights to violent shootouts—Bob knows there’s more to the story than a little bad blood between townsfolk . . .
Someone is gunning for him. Somewhere in Rattlesnake Wells, an enemy from Hatfield’s past is waiting to make his move. And sometimes, there’s only one way to deliver justice: right between the eyes . . .
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
Buford Morrison pushed back from the table and proclaimed with a wide, satisfied smile, "Now that was a meal worth makin' a long, hard ride to enjoy!" He paused to sweep his one good eye over his tablemates and brought it to rest on Bob Hatfield at the head of the table. "And you, you lucky so-and-so, being married to the prettiest gal in Wyoming and having her be able to cook that good to boot ... Doggone if that don't seem like more good fortune than any one man deserves."
Bob grinned amiably. "What can I say? I guess clean living and pure thoughts sometimes pay off in the end."
Seated next to Bob, his wife Consuela rolled her eyes. "I don't know about that," she said. Then, turning her dazzling smile on Buford, she added, "But I do know that flattery can be rewarded by another piece of blueberry pie — are you sure you don't have room for one more, Marshal?"
"Yes, sad to say that's the case," Buford answered. "Not that the desire ain't there, I promise you. But if I ate one more bite I'm afraid I might blow up and bust." He gestured toward Bucky, Bob's eleven-year-old son, seated next to him. "Save it for the boy here. Young lads always got room for more pie, ain't that right?"
"Most always," agreed Bucky. Then, holding his hands to his stomach, he added, "But right at the moment, I'm afraid I'm in the same fix as you. I don't think I can hardly hold another bite."
"The only solution, then," said Consuela, "is to arrange for each of you to have some later on. That's easy enough for you, Bucky; there'll be a piece waiting in the pantry. For you, Marshal Morrison, I will wrap a slice in waxed paper and you can take it with you. Since you are spending the night at the jail to keep an eye on your prisoners, you can either have it before you go to bed or perhaps when you wake up in the morning with some coffee."
"She's a beauty, she can cook, and she thinks good. The complete package," said Buford. "The only thing is — and I say this with all proper gratitude and meaning no offense — I will gladly take the pie to have later on. As far as having it with a cup of coffee from your jail, though, Bob ... there's where I'd have to consider a serious change in plans."
"All right, all right. I get your point," said Bob.
Buford wagged his head. "I've made coffee out on the trail under the worst conditions you can name. Wind, dust, rain, snow ... But even for all of that, I ain't ever made a pot as awful as what you and your deputies regularly brew down at that jail of yours."
"I said I got your point, didn't I? With nobody arguing against you, where's the need to carry on about it?"
Buford was a deputy U.S. Marshal, operating out of Cheyenne headquarters. Pursuing owlhoots of every stripe throughout all of Wyoming, and sometimes farther, he intermittently passed through Rattlesnake Wells. In the course of these stopovers, he'd gotten to know and become friends with Bob, who was the town marshal here. This also meant exposure to the notoriously vile coffee that Bob and his deputies had a knack for making. No matter who took a turn at the brewing or how they altered their technique, the results were equally dismal. These doomed outcomes had created a reputation of sorts and had even given rise to speculation that the marshal's office/jail was perhaps built over some ancient Indian burial site that was retaliating with a bizarre curse.
Buford referenced this wild speculation now, continuing with a sly smile, "All I'm saying is that your luck with bad coffee is enough to make a body wonder some about that Injun curse business. I don't normally take stock in that kind of mumbo-jumbo, but whenever I hear an odd creak or a low moan of wind tonight, I expect it'll cross my mind a time or two."
On this occasion, Buford had shown up in Rattlesnake Wells riding escort to a tumbleweed wagon, a sort of mobile prison with barred sides and reinforcements all around. In such a conveyance, prisoners were collected from different points around the territory and hauled back to Cheyenne for further incarceration until a trial was held to decide their final fate.
Buford had arrived on this trip around the middle of the day, with three prisoners already in custody. He also had a wagon driver, a man named Crispin, a gout victim so hobbled by the disease that he hardly ventured more than a few feet away from the wagon. Waiting for the federal lawman at the town marshal's office was a telegram out of Cheyenne informing him of two wanted men — Abner and Ulmer Silas — reported to be in the area, working at one of the gold mines in the Prophecy Mountains north of town.
It was the Prophecy gold strike that had turned Rattlesnake Wells from a quiet farming and ranching community into a sprawling, often boisterous boomtown with no sign of the ore petering out any time soon. This made it an attraction that drew a steady stream of newcomers, every sort from hardworking, hard-luck dreamers looking to strike it rich and turn their lives around to opportunistic entrepreneurs planning to cash in by supplying goods at inflated prices to take advantage of those with sudden wealth lining their pockets; and in between, the hustlers, schemers, and double-dealers out to make a profit by playing every crooked angle there was. It was a steadily churning mix that also served as a good hiding place for men on the dodge from past misdeeds ... men like the Silas brothers, wanted for bank and train robberies and a handful of murders along the way.
The telegram awaiting Buford provided an allegedly solid tip on where to find the Silases and instructed him to apprehend them while he was in the area and then bring them back to Cheyenne along with his other prisoners. In order to carry out this assignment, Buford had asked and been granted permission to house his current prisoners in Bob's jail while he went after the Silases.
Not only that, Bob had volunteered to side Buford in rounding up the outlaw brothers. The lawmen were set to head out for the high country in pursuit of their quarry first thing in the morning. The supper at Bob's house was a combination of professional courtesy and plain old hospitality.
"The offer to spend the night in our spare bedroom still stands," Consuela reminded Buford, following his remark about the night noises he might encounter at the jail. "You already have your assistant spending the night there because he doesn't get around well enough to go any farther than necessary."
"I appreciate the kind offer, ma'am, I really do," Buford assured her. "But I'm afraid I gotta turn it down. It's sort of a habit of mine to stick pretty close to the prisoners I take into custody until I've got 'em turned over to the federal lockup in Cheyenne."
"It's a habit you ought to be familiar with, 'Suela," Bob said. "It's the same one I follow whenever we throw troublemakers in the clink and keep 'em overnight. Either me or one of the deputies bunk on that cot in the storeroom overnight, too, to make sure there's no funny business."
"And I've never understood that, either," said Consuela stubbornly, giving a faint head shake that caused her long, glossy black hair to ripple down either side of her lovely face. "Once you have them secure behind bars, why the need to continue watching them so close? To me, it seems overly cautious."
Buford smiled wryly. "Been more than a few lawmen who figured that same way. Once they had some varmint in handcuffs or behind bars, they reckoned they could relax and let down their guard a mite. Not always — but too often to ignore — that turned out to be a mistake. The only good thing to be said afterward in most of those cases was that it was the last mistake they ever made."
"You teach a harsh lesson, Marshal," Consuela conceded when he had finished.
"It's a harsh life I lead, ma'am." Buford's wry smile turned into a lopsided grin. "But such as it is, it's one I'd just as soon keep living for a while. And hard as it might be to believe, there are a few others who I think sorta like having me around, too — Crispin, my wagon driver, for example. He's a good man, and under different circumstances I might very well take you up on your offer and leave him looking after those prisoners at the jail on his own tonight. But with his gout giving him the miseries as bad as it is, I don't want to stick him with being the only one to handle that pack of rascals. Knowing I wasn't around and also knowing Crispin's ailing the way he is, it'd be like 'em to raise a ruckus and keep him hopping the whole while, just for lowdown orneriness. With me on hand, that ain't apt to happen."
Standing six feet four inches tall and weighing in at well over two hundred pounds carried on a rugged, barrel-chested frame, Buford Morrison wasn't somebody too many men wanted to trifle with. In addition to his intimidating appearance, there was the near-mythical reputation that had taken root about his sheer toughness — starting with the shoot-out during which a ricocheting bullet fragment had taken out his left eye. Hardly slowed by the misfortune, Buford had kept on fighting, bloody mucus running down the side of his face, until he'd cut down the last of the desperadoes who'd been gunning for him and he alone was left standing.
After that he took to wearing an eye patch, but it did nothing to slow his effectiveness as a lawman willing to go after the worst owlhoots in the territory. He'd never back-shoot a man merely to gain advantage over him, nor did he treat his prisoners with undue harshness. But by the same token, neither did he hesitate to blast someone who made the mistake of trying to put up a fight, and his treatment of anyone he took into custody was humane only to the extent the individual's behavior warranted.
"I won't say you've completely convinced me, but it's hard to argue against the logic of your experience," Consuela told him. "What there can be no argument with, however, is that your remarks reminded me of something I would have felt very guilty over had I left it unaddressed. If I send a piece of pie with you for later, you see, then I surely should include one for your friend Señor Crispin. And, since Fred will be there with Señor Crispin until you return, I really can't send pie anywhere near his vicinity without making sure there's some available for him, too."
"I don't know that you have to go to all that trouble," said Bob. "Fred was going to see to it that Crispin, the prisoners, and himself got a good supper by having it fetched from the Shirley House kitchen. May not be as good as your cooking, but they put on a decent spread."
"I know they do," agreed Consuela. "But I'm not thinking about Fred going hungry as much as I am hurting his feelings."
"Not that I don't fight goin' to gut myself," Morrison admitted, "but having gotten a good look at your Deputy Fred, yeah, he's a good-sized boy. Don't appear he's missed too many bites of pie or anything else that's passed his way for a while. And as far as Crispin goes, he may be scrawny as a tumbleweed twig but he can pack away chow with the best of 'em. So I feel safe in speaking for him and assuring you he'd also be real grateful for a piece of that pie."
Consuela rose to her feet. "It's a good thing I made a second one. I'll go slice and prepare some pieces to take with you."
Buford watched her leave the table and then his gaze returned to Bob. "Like I said, there's a heap of good fortune for just one man."
"You say that like I haven't scraped against some rough edges in my time as well," Bob reminded him. "What's more, you half make it sound like I got such a dose of good fortune all in one swoop — and I ain't saying 'Suela's not a fine prize, mind you — that I should start figuring on nothing but torment and misery the rest of the way forward."
"Naw, I never said no such thing. Sure never meant it that way, anyhow," Buford protested. "I'll even go so far as to say that if anybody rates callin' the lovely Consuela his missus, and it can't be me ... well, I reckon you ain't all that undeserving. How's that?"
Bob cocked a single eyebrow. "I think there might have been something close to a compliment in there."
"How about you, lad?" Buford asked, turning his attention to Bucky. "How do you like having Consuela for your new mom?"
The red-haired youngster appeared to consider the question very earnestly before answering. "Well, so far it's not really anything too different. I mean, Consuela's been cooking and cleaning for us and taking care of me for almost as long as I can remember. My true ma's been dead for nearly three years now, and even before she passed, she was sick and weak most all the time. Consuela was there, taking care of her, too."
"Doggone it, that was a blunt, stupid thing for me to bring up," said Buford, looking suddenly uncomfortable. "I'm sorry for that, lad. Truly I am."
"You don't need to be. It was a fair question," Bucky said. "I think about my ma a lot, and I loved her a whole bunch. I hope it didn't sound like anything less. I was just trying to say that Consuela has always been right there, too, almost like a second mom all along. So when her and Pa finally decided to get married — after folks around town kept wondering why it took so long on account of how it was so plain the way they felt about each other — well, it really didn't make that much of a change for me. Calling Consuela my ma is the only thing I'm having a little trouble getting used to."
"It'll come in time," Bob said. "And if it doesn't, Consuela has already told you that she understands if you don't feel comfortable calling her Mother."
"I want to," insisted Bucky. "Like I said, I feel about her almost the same way and everything. It's just that ..."
"Let it go." Bob's tone was sterner this time. "That's for you and 'Suela to work out between the two of you, and you got plenty of time."
Nobody said anything for a minute. Until, with his mouth curving into an impish grin, Bucky added, "I'll tell you the hardest thing for me to get used to, Mr. Marshal Morrison. And that's seeing Pa and Consuela making cow eyes at each other and sneaking smooches once in a while when they think I'm not looking."
Buford emitted a hearty chuckle.
Bob felt his ears burn a little and knew they'd be turning as bright a red as his thick head of hair, its shade matched perfectly by Bucky's. Still, he couldn't quite hold back a grin of his own. "I'll tell you something that might be even harder for you to get used to, buster — and that's going without the piece of pie Consuela won't be saving for you if I tell her you were being a smarty-pants in front of our guest."
"Aw, I was only funnin' a little, Pa. You even grinned some yourself. And you and Consuela do smooch and cuddle an awful lot since the wedding."
Bob tried to glare at him, but he couldn't muster much heat. The boy was right. What was more, Bob decided, there wasn't a darned thing to be embarrassed about for cuddling and smooching his new wife.CHAPTER 2
A short time later, Bob and Buford quit the Hatfield house and started down the slope toward town and the marshal's office. It was a clear night, early spring, still with a bite of leftover winter in the air.
As they walked, the two men made quite an imposing pair. Bob was a couple inches short of Buford's six-four and not as thick through the torso, but nevertheless plenty solid and every bit as wide across the shoulders. Both men wore Colts on their right hips, displayed prominently in holsters attached to fully loaded cartridge belts. In addition, Buford carried a Winchester '73 rifle chambered for .45-caliber rounds, same as his sidearm. He strode along carefully balancing a plate of neatly wrapped pie slices in his left hand and the Winchester gripped casually in his right.
"You're never very far from that Winchester, not even in town, are you?" Bob observed.
"Nope," Buford answered. "It gives me added range and added punch, and I decided those are benefits I kinda like, no matter where I'm at. Plus, having it openly displayed tends to discourage certain proddies who might otherwise be inclined to try and start some trouble with me." He paused a moment before adding, "And then, probably above all, there's the fact that I ain't exactly greased lightnin' when it comes to yankin' out my hogleg and puttin' it to use. The rifle solves that problem, too."
"From all reports, it seems to've solved it pretty good. You've cut a wide swath all through the territory with that rifle and that badge, and you're still going strong."
Buford grunted. "Trust me, I keep at this only because no better opportunity has come along. If I could ever quit law-doggin' altogether, or maybe at least settle down to a sweet setup like you've got here, I'd jump on it in a heartbeat."
"How come you never?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Right Between The Eyes"
Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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