William W. Johnstone's Last Gunfighter novels have made him a national bestselling author and confirmed his standing as America’s most popular chronicler of the Wild West—and of the men and women who tamed it. Now, he brings his gritty, hard-edged vision of the frontier to a story of greed, power, and courage, as a beautiful land is caught in the grips of a dirty little war . . .
When Frank Morgan sets up camp in a lush valley in Montana, the last thing he expects to see is fires lighting up the night sky as fields, farms and homes are torched by so-called “range detectives” working for two powerful ranchers. For the ranchers, the battle lines have been drawn in the form of newly settled farmland that’s cutting through the ranges, separating cattle from grazing land and water. But the settlers are breaking no law, and no one is going to prevent them from building their homes and towns—until the ranchers turn to a pair of vicious mercenaries who won’t stop until they run out of bullets. Now, Frank Morgan finds himself taking gun in hand once more to help folks who desperately need it. Having fought his way across the frontier, he knows his time may be up—but anyone fixing to kill the last gunfighter had better to be ready to die.
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The Last Gunfighter: The Burning
By William W Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2003 William W Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Frank first smelled the odor of charred wood, then the smell of burned human flesh. Once that is smelled, the memory of the stink never leaves a person.
Coming from the north, Frank thought, right over that next little ridge.
Just to be on the safe side, Frank shucked his rifle from the saddle boot and levered a round into the .44-40. Might be Indians, he thought. Better to err on the side of caution.
He topped the ridge and looked down at the charred ruins of a homestead and several dead livestock. He could not immediately spot any bodies, but the smell told him there were some down there. He also dismissed the thought of Indians. They would have stolen the horses and driven off the cattle for food, not shot the animals and left the carcasses to rot on the ground.
On the ridge, Frank took a long, careful look around him at the carefully tended fields that formed a crude half circle around the ruins of the homestead. He could see nothing moving and more importantly, could sense nothing. Frank rode down to what had been the small front yard of the homestead. He could tell the picket fence had been torn down by several mounted men. He looked down at Dog, his big cur dog, part wolf, part God only knows what else. Dog didn't like the smell, but he was not baring his teeth or growling and the hair on his back was not standing up.
Frank swung down from the saddle, and led his horses over to a watering trough and let them drink a bit, but not too much. Then he walked all around the house, still carrying his rifle. There was no sign of any life. He wasn't expecting to find any.
He looked up at the sound of a wagon rattling up the road. The wagon was followed by a couple of men on horseback. Frank waited in the front yard. He could see a man and a woman on the wagon seat.
The man brought the wagon to a halt in front of the house. The two mounted men sat their saddles and stared at Frank.
"I just rode in from the south," Frank said. "Over that ridge yonder. I smelled the odor of charred wood and death and decided to investigate."
"You say," one of the mounted men said.
"That's right, mister," Frank told him, meeting his eyes. "I say."
"Any sign of life?" asked the man holding the reins of the wagon team. His tone was a lot friendlier.
"I haven't found any yet."
"This was Dick and Abby Norton's place," the man in the wagon said. "They had two boys, Hubert and Charles."
"No sign of them," Frank said. "But I just got here. I've had time to walk once around the ruins."
"Why are you carrying a rifle?" the other mounted man asked.
"Because I didn't know what to expect," Frank said. "And I still don't know about this. Only that it wasn't Indians and it happened hours ago."
"Sometime during the night for sure," the man in the wagon said. "I'm Claude Hornsby and this is my wife, Mavis. The other two are Dan and Hugh."
"Just Frank?" Dan asked.
"It'll do for the time being."
"Let's look for the bodies," Claude said, stepping down from the wagon.
"Maybe they're not dead," Hugh said, dismounting.
"They're dead," Claude replied. "Just like the others."
"Others?" Frank asked.
"It's a long story," Claude told him.
"As if he don't know it," Dan said.
Frank looked at the man and held his temper in check. There definitely was more to this story than he knew. He waited for someone to explain.
"Mr. Frank," Mavis said as her husband helped her down from the wagon seat, "we're farmers in the middle of cattle country."
"And the cattlemen want you out of here," Frank replied. It was not posed as a question.
"I should have guessed it," Frank said. "Same old story. I've seen it before."
"You wear a tied-down pistol," Claude said. "The gunmen the big spreads in this area have hired all wear tied-down guns."
"No one has hired me to do anything," Frank said. "I don't hire my gun."
"But you are a gunman," Claude persisted.
Frank smiled at the way the farmer pronounced it. "I've been called that, yes."
"I don't see anything funny about it," Claude said sourly.
"I assure you, friend," Frank replied. "There isn't." He looked over at Dan. "You know the names of any of these hired guns?"
"Two or three drift in every day, Frank. I've heard the names Paco and Jess mentioned."
Frank whistled softly. "Paco Morales and Jess Stone."
"You know them?"
"I know them. They're bad ones. Top gun handlers. I know they don't like each other."
"Do they like you?" Hugh questioned.
"No," Frank said flatly. "They'd like to kill me."
"Why is that, Mr. Frank?" Mavis asked.
"Oh ... call it professional jealousy."
"Then you must be famous," Claude said.
"I'm known some here and there," Frank admitted. "Do you want to look for your friends in the rubble? I think it's cool enough."
"You'd help us?" Dan asked.
"Sure. Why not?"
They found the bodies of the man and his wife in the house, in the area that Dan said was once their bedroom. The bodies of the boys were found in the ruins of the barn.
"Someone better ride in and notify the sheriff," Frank said.
That got him some queer looks from the farmers.
"Did I say something out of line?" Frank asked.
"Notifying the sheriff would be a waste of time," Claude said. "He's solid on the side of the big ranchers. Besides, he'd just say the fire was nothing but an accident."
"There is a bullet hole in the woman's head," Frank pointed out.
"That don't make no difference," Hugh said. "He'd say some ammunition in the house exploded and done it."
"I'll go tell the Kalens," Dan said. "Ask them to spread the word. We'll have the buryin' in the mornin'."
"Someone has to tell Paul about this," Mavis said softly.
Frank was standing away from the group, listening.
The men turned to look at the woman. Her husband said, "You're right And I'm not lookin' forward to that."
The group was silent for a moment. Frank took that time to ask, "Is there a town nearby?"
"There's a no-name town that's pretty much owned by the two big ranchers in this area." He pointed. "They's rooms for let over the saloon. Right down that road 'bout eight miles."
Frank looked at the blanket-covered bodies. "You want some help burying these people?"
"Why would you volunteer?" Hugh asked. "You don't have no stake in none of this."
"No reason. Just being friendly in a time of need."
"We appreciate it, Mr. Frank," Mavis said. "But we can make do. As soon as we get the word out, they'll be folks aplenty. We'll have the buryin' in the morning."
"All right. I'll just wash up a bit, then be on my way. I wish you people the best of luck." He turned to walk over to his pack animal for a bar of strong soap, then hesitated and turned around to face the group. "I heard a saying once that fits this situation."
"What's that, Frank?" Dan asked.
"That don't spell nothing. What's all that mean?" Claude asked.
"Don't Let The Bastards Get You Down."
The men smiled and Mavis blushed. Hugh asked, "What is your last name, Frank?"
"Morgan." Frank got his soap and washed up at the trough while the men stood in shock, speechless.
"Frank Morgan?" Dan finally found his voice.
"Yes," Frank said, drying his hands on an old shirt he'd found on the ground.
"The Frank Morgan?" Claude asked.
"I reckon so," Frank told him. "I don't know but one and that's me." Frank stepped into the saddle and lifted the reins. "You folks take it easy. See you."
He rode off in the direction of the no-name settlement, Dog loping along beside his horse.
As he rode, Frank could understand why there was a fight over the land. The land was lush, the earth rich, suitable for both farming and grazing of cattle.
The road Frank traveled toward town led through a series of beautiful valleys, and there were several more lush valleys behind him, east of the recently burned homestead. The valleys were long and wide, with snowcapped mountains to the north, green rolling hills to the south. In the valleys ran several creeks and a small river. It was a beautiful place, to be sure. Certainly worth fighting over. It was mostly unspoiled by civilization, with no telegraph wires that Frank could spot.
Frank rode into the small settlement at midafternoon. He stabled his horses at the livery and Dog immediately settled into the stall with Stormy, Frank's big Appaloosa. Frank made certain Dog had a bucket of water just inside the stall.
"Does that dog bite?" the man at the livery asked, putting a wary eye on the big cur.
"He's been known to bite," Frank told the man. "But he won't if you leave him alone."
"I'll damn shore do that."
"No café in this town?" Frank asked.
"No. Tell the truth, it ain't much of a town. But they serve food at the saloon. Got rooms there too." He peered at Frank for a moment. "You look familiar. You been through here before?"
"Lookin' for work, are you?"
"Too bad. They's plenty of work to be had. I just figured you was lookin' to hire your gun."
"Gun handlers in demand around here, hey?"
"You bet. The GP spread is hirin', as is the Diamond ranch. Top wages, I hear."
"I'm just passing through. Just looking for a bed and a meal."
"You watch yourself in the saloon, mister. They's a lot of randy ol' boys in town."
"I'll be careful. Take care of my horses, will you?"
"Like they was my own. And I'll fight shy of that damn dog too."
Frank walked over to the saloon/hotel and got a room. The clerk didn't even look up after Frank signed his name. The room wasn't much, but the bed looked comfortable enough and the sheets were clean. He washed up as best he could in the hand basin, then walked down into the saloon section of the building. A dozen or so men were idling away their time, most of them seated at tables. Two were standing at the bar. Even though he did not recognize any of them, he could tell all of them were hard cases. They gave Frank a long once-over as he walked to the bar and ordered a beer.
"Just gettin' into town?" the man closest to Frank asked.
"Just got here."
"You pulled in at the right time, for sure. The GP and the Diamond are hirin'. Payin' good wages too."
"Fighting wages?" Frank asked.
"You bet. The best."
"The two spreads fighting each other?"
The gunhand gave Frank a quick curious look, then shook his head. "Naw. Sodbusters are movin' in. Takin' all the good land. Got to get rid of them. You must have ridden in from afar not to know that."
"New Mexico," Frank told him.
The gunhandler whistled softly. "That's afar, all right, for a fact. Say, you want me to put in a good word for you?"
Frank shook his head. "I think I'll pass on this one. But thanks just the same."
"That might be wise of you. They's some bad ol' boys hirin' on."
"Yeah. Jess Stone and Paco Morales is here. They don't get no badder than them two. Lessen Frank Morgan was to ride in. Now, that would be somethin."
Frank smiled. "Yeah, that would be something, wouldn't it?" Frank cut his eyes to a man standing at the far end of the long bar. The man was dressed all in black and wearing two guns, slung low and tied down. "Who's that one?" he asked.
The man followed Frank's eyes. "That's Rod Harley," he whispered. "He's near'bouts as bad as them two I mentioned. That feller standin' next to him is Bob Campbell. You heard of him?"
"Yes. He's from down around El Paso."
"That's him, for a fact. I don't know the third man standin' there. All I ever heard him called was Steve."
"Could be Steve Nesbett. Came out of Missouri after shooting a man in the back over a woman."
"Might be, I reckon. Say, you got a name?"
"I'm Dave Moore."
Dave took a second look at Frank, and Frank saw his right hand tighten around the handle on his mug of beer. "Frank Morgan?" he whispered.
"Dear God!" Dave whispered. "And you're not buyin' into this fight?"
"No. I'm just passing through."
"Does anyone around here know you're in town?"
"Some farmers. I helped them look for bodies, searching through the ashes of a homestead that was burned out last night."
"I hadn't heard about that. Did you find any bodies?"
"Four. Man and his wife and their two sons."
"Damn!" Dave muttered. "I knew there might be some killin'. But not women and kids."
"Range wars are dirty business, Dave. If both sides would just sit down and talk, maybe each side give a little, they could usually be avoided. But that don't often happen."
"I reckon it don't," Dave said. "And it damn shore ain't gonna happen this time neither."
"After seeing what was left of the Norton place, I tend to agree with you."
Dave was silent for a few seconds. "I knowed them. They was nice folks. Damn!" he cursed softly.
"Sort of changes things around in your mind, hey?"
"Damn shore does. I just don't hold with killin' women and kids."
"Nobody decent does, Dave."
Dave cut his eyes to Frank. "I never heard it put just like that, Frank."
"There aren't but two kinds of people in this world, Dave. Decent people and indecent people."
"There ain't no in-between?"
"Not in my mind."
"I reckon not," Dave admitted.
"So, are you going to stick around and get hired on?" Dave shook his head. "I think I'll stick around. But as far as gettin' hired, I got to give that some more thought."
"I thought you would."
"Did you now?"
"Yes. I think deep down you might be a decent person. Say, you had supper?"
"I'm hungry. You want to join me for a bite? I'm buying."
"Nice of you. Yeah, I'm kinda hungry myself."
Frank finished his beer and stepped away from the bar. As he did, a man stood up from a table and called to him.
Frank turned to face the man.
"Thought that was you, Morgan. I been studyin' you since you come in the saloon. Remember me?"
"Can't say as I do," Frank replied.
"George Cummings, Drifter. Now you remember me?"
"Nope," Frank said.
"Down on the strip 'bout ten years back. You pistol-whipped me. Treated me like crap, you did."
"Oh, yeah," Frank said. "I recall now. You were beating that Indian woman. I stopped you."
"She was my woman, Drifter. I owned her. I had me a right to do anything I wanted with her."
"Slavery officially ended back in '65, George, remember? It was after that conflict called the Civil War."
"That was about niggers, Drifter. Not squaws."
"Is there a point to this conversation, George?"
"Yeah. Point is I'm gonna kill you, Drifter."
"Doubtful, George. Real doubtful."
George pushed a chair out of his way and stepped away from the table. "I owe you a bullet, Drifter. And I'm gonna give it to you right now."
"Then make your play, George," Frank said, his words tinged with ice. "You're keeping me from supper."CHAPTER 2
A man laughed at that, and George flushed in anger. "I don't like to be made light of, Drifter."
Frank said nothing.
Beside him, Dave eased away a few feet — out of the line of fire, he hoped.
"Did you hear me, Drifter?" George demanded.
"I'm not deaf, George. Are you going to drag that smoke-pole or talk me to death?"
"I want you to sweat a little bit."
"The only thing I'm doing is getting sleepy," Frank told him. "Now I'm both hungry and sleepy."
"Damn you, Drifter!" George swore.
Frank turned his back to the man and signaled for the barkeep to bring him another beer.
"Don't turn your ass to me!" George yelled.
Frank ignored him.
"What's going on in here?" a new voice added, speaking from the batwings.
"Nothin', Jim," a man said quickly.
"The foreman out at the GP," Dave whispered. "Jim Knight. He's a bad one."
Frank nodded his head in understanding.
"What are you all puffed up about, George?" the foreman asked.
"Nothin', Jim," George said. "Nothin' at all."
"That's Frank Morgan standin' at the bar, Jim," another GP hand said.
Jim walked over to Frank and leaned against the bar. "So you're the living legend, huh?"
"I'm Frank Morgan. I wouldn't know about the living legend." Frank took a sip of beer and set the mug on the bar. He turned his head to look at Jim Knight.
He was a bear of a man. About Frank's height. Barrel-chested with plenty of hard-packed muscle under his shirt. Frank figured him to be between forty and forty-five. Somewhere close to Frank's age.
"Something you want?" Frank asked. "Or are you just going to stand there and stare at me?"
The foreman blinked at that. Clearly, he was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner. "You got a mouth on you, don't you, Morgan?"
"I asked a question, if that's what you mean."
Excerpted from The Last Gunfighter: The Burning by William W Johnstone. Copyright © 2003 William W Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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