New York Times Bestselling AuthorJohn Henry Sixkiller, a Cherokee U.S. marshal, takes the jobs no one wants to touch. Now the brother of a killer who was sent to the gallows has sworn vengeance on the judge and jury.
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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As the sun rose, the shadow of the gallows extended over the prison yard and fell across the faces of those assembled in the grim dawn. Some of them raised a hand to shade their eyes from the glare.
They wanted to be able to see the man who was about to be marched to his death.
Reporters, prison officials, and others were relatives of the condemned man's victims. The lawman who had captured Henry Garrett, Sheriff Mike Rasmussen of Kiowa City, Kansas, was there, too.
Despite the early hour, the air was already hot and still inside the prison walls. Rasmussen took off his hat and used it to fan his face, but it didn't do much good.
A phalanx of guards appeared to escort Garrett from the death house. The squat, stone building was small, with room for just the one cell. It had been ringed by armed men ever since Garrett had been locked into it the previous evening. The prisoner had eaten his last meal there.
Rasmussen put his hat on again.
Henry Garrett was in the middle of that group of guards, shuffling forward slowly, his ankles locked into leg irons. He wouldn't be in any hurry to get where he was going, even if he didn't have the leg irons on.
With the guards in the way, Rasmussen couldn't see the prisoner very well. Garrett wasn't big to start with, a slender man of medium height with a lean face and a shock of sandy hair. He didn't look like much, didn't look very frightening.
At least half a dozen people had had good cause to be afraid of him, though, as they stared at him in horror over the barrel of a gun just before he killed them. And there was no telling how many other folks he had murdered that the law didn't even know about. His gang had been responsible for dozens of robberies and shootings while running wild across Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Indian Territory. They hadn't hesitated to gun down anybody who was unlucky enough to get in their way.
Followed by the sober-faced prison warden and a black-suited preacher, the guards drew even with the group of spectators. Rasmussen peered between them and got his first good look at the condemned man.
Several months in prison hadn't changed Henry Garrett much. He was a little leaner, his piercing blue eyes set a little deeper in his gaunt face.
Those eyes were as cold and merciless as ever, though, Rasmussen discovered when they swung to the side and locked on him. The outlaw's gaze still held plenty of power.
Rasmussen's nostrils flared as he drew in a deep breath. He blew it out as Garrett looked away.
The group reached the bottom of the thirteen steps. Still moving slowly, Garrett began to climb them.
That climb seemed to take forever. Some of the spectators shuffled their feet nervously. They had come this morning to watch a man die, but now they weren't so sure they wanted to do that.
Every road had its end, Rasmussen thought. Henry Garrett had come to his. A tall man in a black suit like the preacher's and a broad-brimmed black hat waited on the platform for him. The hangman stood with his hand on the trapdoor's lever as the guards maneuvered Garrett into position.
The warden said in a quiet, gentle voice, "Do you have any last words, son?"
"There ain't much left to say," Garrett responded. "No, wait a minute. There is something." He looked down at the crowd. "Sheriff Rasmussen?"
The lawman swallowed hard and asked, "What is it, Garrett?"
"I just want you to know you never would've caught me, you useless sack o' guts, if my horse hadn't stepped in that damn prairie dog hole."
One of the guards glared and stepped closer to the prisoner, raising the rifle he held as he did so.
The warden lifted a hand to stop Garrett from talking.
"Let him go on," Rasmussen said. "Man's got a right to have his say, especially now."
"That's right. I don't want to leave this world with you thinkin' you're somethin' special, Sheriff, 'cause you ain't. You're just a fella who got lucky." Garrett paused to draw in a breath. "When you get back to Kiowa City, you tell Judge Doolittle and the men who were on that jury I ain't forgot about them, neither. Tell 'em that I went out thinkin' about what they got comin' to them ... and that I'll see 'em in hell."
"That's enough," the warden said. "This isn't the time or place for threats."
"You're right about that. That's why I'm not makin' threats." Garrett smiled at Rasmussen again. "I'm makin' promises."
The warden signaled to the executioner, who placed a black hood over Garrett's head. The sky pilot opened his Bible and started praying in a soft, rapid voice. The warden let that go on for a minute, then motioned for the preacher to step back.
"In accordance with the laws of Kansas and the sentence handed down by a jury of your peers, Henry Garrett, you are hereby hanged by the neck until dead." The warden gave the executioner a curt nod.
Rasmussen looked away. He heard the clatter of the trapdoor, the sudden sharp snap of bone, the swift intake of breath from the spectators.
When he turned his head back toward the gallows, the body clad in its gray prison uniform swung slightly back and forth as it hung from the rope.
The shadow it cast stretched out across the prison yard, just like the gallows from which it dangled.
* * *
In a cell in another part of the prison, Simon Garrett sat on his bunk and watched the slanted rectangle of gray light that came through the small, barred window. It faced east, and he could have stood up, turned around, stepped up onto the bunk, and looked out directly at the dawn.
Instead, he waited, tracking the time by the way the light grew brighter and brighter. Another wing of the prison blocked the sun, so it didn't shine directly into Simon's cell until half an hour after it had risen.
When that gray light turned red and gold, Simon knew his younger brother Henry was dead and had been for a while. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
A few minutes later a guard wearing a blue uniform and a black-billed cap came along the aisle between the rows of cells and paused on the other side of the bars from Simon. "Reckon it's all over. That no-good, murderin' brother of yours is nothin' but worm food now, Garrett."
Simon rested his hands on his thighs and breathed deeply as he fought to keep the emotions raging inside him under control. He didn't want to give this man — or any of the others inside the prison — the satisfaction of seeing how his brother's death affected him.
"Yeah, one of the guards who was there told me all about it. He told me how your little brother screamed and fought and begged for his life while they forced him up the steps to meet the hangman."
That was a lie, Simon thought. Henry never would have begged. Never.
"Pissed his pants, too," the guard went on. "Did a little jig in midair while he was chokin' to death. I'll bet it was a right entertainin' show. Too bad they're not gonna do the same thing to you."
Simon Garrett was serving a five-year sentence for armed robbery. He had done four years of the allotted time, with one to go. Before he had been caught, convicted, and sent away, the Garrett gang had been his. Henry hadn't been much more than a kid in those days.
He had grown up in a hurry, though, taking over the gang when Simon went to prison. He had led them on bigger and better jobs than Simon ever had, until his luck ran out and his horse broke a leg while he was fleeing from a posse.
"I don't guess it really matters," the guard said. "You'll be back here sooner or later, and we'll get another crack at you. You'll wind up dancing on air, just like your brother."
Simon kept his eyes down and acted like he didn't hear the guard. The man let out a bored, frustrated snort and walked away, his thick-soled shoes smacking against the floor and setting up echoes that cascaded around the big cell block.
Simon didn't stand up until those echoes had died away. Then he turned toward the wall, clenched his left hand into a fist, and slammed it against the stone. His lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace as he drove his fist against the wall again and again until his hand was a bloody, broken hulk.
It didn't matter. It wasn't his gun hand.CHAPTER 2
One year later
Kiowa City, Kansas, was quiet. Except for the three saloons and the parlor house on the edge of town, all the businesses were closed.
Most of the residences were dark, as most folks had already turned in for the night. Here and there, the yellow glow of lamplight could be seen in a window. In those homes, somebody was sick or just couldn't sleep.
Off to the west, skeletal fingers of lightning clawed through the night sky, followed by a distant rumble of thunder. A summer storm lurked out there along the railroad tracks. It might move in later, or it might break up before it ever reached the settlement.
Sheriff Mike Rasmussen wouldn't mind if it rained. Even a brief shower might break the stifling blanket of heat that had laid over the plains for the past couple weeks.
His office was on the first floor of the brick courthouse in the square at the center of town. Despite the late hour, he sat at his desk, laboring by lamplight over an expense report for the county commissioners.
He wrote a word or two, made a face like he had just bitten into a piece of sour fruit, chewed on the black mustache that drooped over his mouth, and wrote a little more. Not a breath of air stirred in the room despite the open windows.
It was easy for him to hear the gunshots that suddenly shattered the peaceful silence.
Rasmussen's head snapped up. He dropped the pen, splattering a few splotches of ink across the paper.
The gunshots continued as he leaped to his feet. They seemed to be coming from one of the town's residential areas a couple blocks away.
The sheriff had taken off his gun belt and hung it on a peg near the door when he had come into the office. Now he grabbed the belt and slung it around his hips as he hurried into the hallway.
The night-duty deputy sat behind a desk at the end of the corridor. He had a look of alarm on his face.
Rasmussen fumbled with the gun belt's buckle as he trotted toward the deputy. "Grab a shotgun, Carl," he ordered. "We need to find out what's goin' on out there."
Kiowa City had a town marshal, Emory Bannister, who broke up saloon fights and threw drunks in jail, but that was all he did. He had made it clear to the town council that he wasn't getting mixed up in any gunplay.
So the council contracted with the sheriff's office to handle any serious problems. Like all politicians, the county commissioners were always responsive to anything that generated extra revenue they could spend, so they were in favor of the deal.
Hatless, Rasmussen charged out of the courthouse and across the lawn. With the gun belt finally fastened, he drew the holstered Colt revolver.
The shooting stopped, but a swift rataplan of hoofbeats followed it. Rasmussen could tell by the sound that several horsebackers were galloping away into the darkness.
That knowledge disturbed him almost as much as the gunshots. Neither boded well for any peace and quiet the rest of the night.
The screams he heard as the hoofbeats faded away just made it worse.
"Come on, Baird!" he flung over his shoulder at the deputy as he ran along the street.
Carl Baird, whose wife had a reputation for baking the best pies and cakes in the county, had a belly to prove it. He was already huffing and puffing as he hurried to keep up with the sheriff.
The screams led them to a white, two-story frame house with a couple cottonwoods in a yard surrounded by a picket fence. Kiowa City had a lot of houses like that. It was a pleasant, prosperous place, a far cry from the wild, hell-on-wheels cow town it had been ten years earlier when the railhead reached it.
Rasmussen remembered those days and wouldn't have gone back to them for anything.
Other people on the street had heard the screams. Several men came out of their houses wearing nightshirts to find out what was happening. A few carried guns. One wild-eyed hombre gripped an axe in his hands.
"Sheriff, what was all that shooting?" somebody called to the lawman as he hurried by. "Who's that screaming?
"I don't know," Rasmussen replied, "but I'm damn sure gonna find out!"
Nobody had been killed in Kiowa City for more than a year, not even in a saloon shooting. It had been a remarkable run of peace — shattered now.
Rasmussen flung open the fence gate and charged up the flagstone walk. Charles Houston and his wife Agnes lived here. Houston was a partner in the hardware store and one of the settlement's leading citizens.
He wasn't exactly a rich man, though, not the sort likely to have his house broken into by outlaws bent on robbing him.
The front door stood wide open. The screams from inside had died away, replaced by wracking sobs.
Rasmussen went up the steps to the porch in a couple bounds. Behind him, Deputy Baird called, "Be careful, Sheriff! Some of the varmints could still be in there!"
The lawman bit back a curse. Baird was a halfway decent deputy who could follow orders, but he wasn't the smartest fella to ever come down the pike.
"That was them we heard riding away, Carl. You can stay out here, though, just in case they come back."
Baird gulped and said with obvious reluctance, "All right, Sheriff."
Despite what he'd told the deputy about the gunmen being gone, Rasmussen was careful as he stepped into the foyer of the Houston house. He stopped right there, his jaw tightening at the scene in front of him.
A man lay crumpled at the bottom of a staircase leading to the second floor. Next to him knelt a woman, sobbing as she shook him. Her hair was in disarray, and both of them wore nightclothes.
"Charlie!" she said between gasping, choking sobs. "Oh, Charlie, please wake up."
Rasmussen muttered a curse under his breath. He knew both folks, considered them friends. He slid his Colt back in its holster as he took a reluctant step toward them. "Agnes. It's Mike Rasmussen. You better let me take a look at him."
Not that it would do any good. Rasmussen knew that from the pool of blood spreading out around Charles Houston's body. The edge of that crimson tide was already touching the foyer rug.
"Agnes," Rasmussen said again. He reached down and took her arm.
She pulled away from him. "He'll be all right. I know he'll be all right. He just needs to wake up."
"Sure, sure. Why don't you go in the parlor now and let me take a look?"
Agnes Houston finally let him help her to her feet. He steered her toward the parlor and called, "Carl!"
Baird appeared in the doorway. He licked his lips and said, "Yeah, Sheriff?"
"Go get some of the neighbor ladies and bring 'em over here." Rasmussen added in a whisper, "And do it right damned now!"
Agnes was still too shocked and confused to answer any questions. He didn't really need her to tell him what had happened. He had noticed several splotches of blood on the stairs, and that was enough to tell him the story.
Somebody had kicked the door open, and hearing the racket, Charles Houston had come to investigate. The intruders had shot him as he stood at the top of the stairs, causing him to tumble down the flight.
That hadn't been enough to satisfy their bloodlust, though. Judging by the shots Rasmussen had heard and the amount of blood soaking Houston's nightshirt, the killers must have stood over the body and continued to pour bullets into him until he was shot to pieces.
Agnes Houston could plead all she wanted to, but her husband was never going to wake up.
The sheriff settled her into an armchair.
Several of the women who lived on the street bustled into the house a minute later, casting horrified glances at Houston's body as they passed through the foyer to the parlor. Rasmussen turned the grieving widow over to their care and went back to the body.
He stopped counting bullet holes when he reached eight. Oddly enough, none of the shots had struck Houston in the face. His features were untouched except for a scrape on one cheek that must have happened while he was falling down the stairs. His eyes were wide open and staring in shock and disbelief.
Rasmussen grimaced and turned away. As he did, a stocky figure hurried across the porch and into the house.
"Is it true?" Judge Ephraim Doolittle asked. "Charlie Houston is dead?"
Rasmussen sighed heavily and pointed at the body with his thumb. "You can see for yourself, Judge. Nobody survives getting shot that many times."
"Dear Lord, dear Lord," Doolittle muttered. He was a plump man with the round, pleasantly ugly face of a bulldog and white hair parted in the middle and a little askew at the moment. He had been roused from sleep.
Rasmussen could tell that the judge had dressed hastily; not everything was lined up and buttoned right.
"Who would do such a thing?" Doolittle went on.
"I don't know," Rasmussen said. "Everybody liked Charlie. I don't think he had an enemy in this town."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sixkiller, U.S. Marshall: Blood for Blood"
Copyright © 2013 J. A. 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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Great character I have read all the Sixkiller books would love to see more.