JOHNSTONE. KEEPING THE WEST WILD.
Not every Western hero wears a white hat or a tin star. Most of them are just fighting to survive. Some of them can be liars, cheaters, and thieves. And then there’s a couple of old-time robbers named Slash and Pecos . . .
Two wanted outlaws. One hell of a story.
After a lifetime of robbing banks and holding up trains, Jimmy “Slash” Braddock and Melvin “Pecos Kid” Baker are ready to call it quits—though not completely by choice. Sold out by their old gang, Slash and Pecos have to bust out of jail and pull one last job to finance their early retirement . . .
The target is a rancher’s payroll train. Catch is: the train is carrying a Gatling gun and twenty deputy US marshals who know they’re coming. Caught and quickly sentenced to hang, their old enemy—the wheelchair-bound, bucket of mean, Marshal L.C. Bledsoe—shows up at the last minute to spare their lives. For a price. He’ll let them live if they hunt down their old gang, the Snake River Marauders. And kill those prairie rats—with extreme prejudice . . .
About the Author
William W. Johnstone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 300 books, including the series THE MOUNTAIN MAN; PREACHER, THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN; MACCALLISTER; LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER; FLINTLOCK; THOSE JENSEN BOYS; THE FRONTIERSMAN; THE LEGEND OF PERLEY GATES; THE CHUCKWAGON TRAIL; FIRESTICK; SAWBONES; and WILL TANNER: DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL. His thrillers include BLACK FRIDAY, TYRANNY, STAND YOUR GROUND, THE DOOMSDAY BUNKER, and TRIGGER WARNING. Visit his website at www.williamjohnstone.net or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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
In the early morning hours, the bounty hunters gathered around the remote mountain cabin, crouched in a shadowy clearing. They were thirteen in number — a dozen-plus wolves on the blood scent.
Ray Laskey walked up to where Jack Penny crouched in the pines roughly fifty yards from the cabin, running an oily rag down the barrel of his Henry repeating rifle.
"All the boys are in position, boss," Laskey said, slicing a hunk of wedding cake tobacco onto his tongue and chewing.
Penny turned to Laskey and winked in acknowledgment with the rheumy blue eye that always seemed to roll to the outside corner of its socket and that always made Laskey feel vaguely uneasy, for some reason. That wandering eye seemed like some separate living thing, rolling and bobbing around in Penny's ugly, bearded head ... like some ghastly thing that lived inside a log at the bottom of a murky lake and only came out to rend and kill. ...
Both men crouched lower behind their covering pine when the cabin's front door latch clicked. Laskey drew a sharp breath as he turned to see the door open. He squeezed his Spencer tightly but then eased his grip when he saw that the person stepping out onto the cabin's small stoop was a woman with long, thick, copper-red hair.
The woman, nicely put together and clad in a man's wool shirt and tight denim trousers, turned toward the split firewood stacked against the cabin's front wall. When she had an armload, she straightened, turned back to the door, and stopped abruptly.
No, Laskey thought. Don't do that. Keep goin'. Get back inside the cabin, dearie. ...
The woman turned ever so slowly to stand staring straight off into the trees, directly toward where Laskey and Penny crouched behind a stout ponderosa.
Laskey's gut tightened.
Had she heard or in some other way sensed the killers crouched in the forest around the cabin? Had she smelled their unwashed bodies made even whiffier from their long, hard ride over the course of the long night lit only by a small and fleeting powder-horn moon?
Penny glanced at Laskey. The bearded bounty hunter smiled darkly, then raised his Henry to his shoulder. He slid the barrel up over a feathery branch and leveled his sights on the woman. He crouched low over the long gun, resting his bearded cheek up snug against the stock.
Slowly, almost soundlessly, he ratcheted back the hammer with his thumb.
Laskey looked at the woman. His heart thudded. She appeared to be staring straight at him. Straight at Penny steadying his sights on her chest.
No, no, no, dearie. You didn't hear nothin'. You didn't smell nothin'. No one's out here. A coyote, maybe. A rabbit, maybe — up and out too early for its own damn good ...
Go on inside, stoke your stove, start cookin' breakfast for them two cutthroats in there. It's them we want. Not you, purty lady.
We got other plans for you ... dearie. ...
As though obeying Ray Laskey's silent plea, the woman turned slowly, stepped back toward the door, nudged it open, and stepped inside. She turned to look outside once more, then closed the door and latched it with a soft click.
Penny eased his Winchester's hammer down against the firing pin.
Laskey released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.
Penny turned to him, spreading his ragged beard as he grinned. "She almost joined the angels."
"When, uh ..." Laskey said, pressing the wedding cake up tautly against his gum, "when do you want to ... ?"
"Start the dance?"
"Yeah, yeah. Start the dance."
"As soon as they show themselves. Best odds, that way. Won't be too long now, most like. We got time."
"What, uh ... what about the woman?" Laskey said.
"What about her?" Penny asked him.
Laskey shrugged, toed a pinecone. "She's too purty to kill. Outright, I mean ..."
Laskey grinned, juice from the wedding cake bleeding out from between his thin lips.
Penny scowled down at the shorter man. "We came here to kill, an' that's what we're gonna do, Ray, my boy. She's with them cutthroats, so she dies with them cutthroats. Hell, there's a reward on her head, too. Dead or alive. Same as them."
"Oh, boy," Laskey said. "The woman, too, huh? Seems a shame's all."
Penny placed a big, strong, gloved hand on Laskey's shoulder and squeezed. "The woman, too, Ray. We ain't here for none o' that nonsense you're thinkin' about, you randy scoundrel."
Penny brushed his gloved fist across Laskey's pointed chin.
He winked his weird fish eye again, and it rolled like that living thing in the dark lake, fleeing back to its log after feeding.CHAPTER 2
"What you two old cutthroats need is a job," said
James "Slash" Braddock lifted his head from his pillow, frowning at the pretty woman forking bacon around in the cast-iron skillet sputtering atop her coal-black range. "Jay, honey, please don't use such nasty language so early in the morning. Pecos an' me got sensitive ears!"
"What'd she say?" asked Melvin Baker, better known for the past thirty years of his outlaw career as the Pecos River Kid.
He lay belly down on the cot on the far side of the small cabin from Slash Braddock. His blue eyes were open, regarding his longtime outlaw partner in shock and disbelief. "I didn't just hear her use the bad word again — did I, Slash?" He closed his hands over his ears. "Oh, please, tell me I didn't!"
"Now, look what you done, Jay! Poor ole Pecos is beside himself over here! He's likely ruined for the whole dang day! I might have to hide his guns from him, so he don't blow his brains out!"
Pecos buried his face in his pillow and pretend bawled.
At the range, one hand on her hip as she continued to flip and shuttle the bacon around in the same pan in which potatoes and onions fried, Jay shook her long, copper-red hair back from her hazel-eyed face and laughed. "Look what time it is, you old mossyhorns!"
She glanced at the windows behind her through which slanted the crisp, high-altitude sunlight of the Juan Valley of southern Colorado Territory. "It's nigh on midmorning and you two are still lounging around like a pair of eastern railroad magnates on New Year's Day!"
"Lounging around — nothin'!" Pecos lifted his head from his pillow and looked over his shoulder at Jay. "I was dead asleep not more'n two minutes ago. You done woke me up with your foul language. You oughta be ashamed of yourself, woman. What would Pistol Pete think of such talk?"
"Ha!" Jay threw her head back, laughing. "Whenever I mentioned the word 'job' to that old rascal — as in he might want to quit ridin' the long coulees and try an honest job for a change — he'd howl like a gut-shot cur an' skin out of here like a preacher caught in a parlor house. He'd run clear across the yard and throw himself in the creek. Didn't matter what time of year it was. Spring, summer, winter, or fall — that's just what he'd do, Pete would."
Jay threw her head back again, laughing.
But then she turned a thoughtful look over her shoulder, gazing out the window toward the lone grave standing on a knoll about sixty yards out from the cabin, in a little pocket of ponderosas and cedars. Jay's shoulders, clad in a plaid work shirt tucked into tight denims, rose and fell slowly, heavily. Her lower lip trembled. She stifled a sob, clamping her hand over her mouth, then wheeled from the range and hurried to the cabin's front door.
"Excuse me, boys!" she said in an emotion-strangled voice as she opened the door and stepped out onto the small front stoop. She slammed the door behind her.
Through the door, Slash heard her sobbing.
He turned to his partner, scowling, and said, "Pecos, what'd you have to go and do that for?"
"Ah, hell!" Sitting up now, clad in his wash-worn longhandles that clung to his big, rawboned frame, Pecos slapped the cot beside him and hung his gray-blond, blue-eyed head like a young man fresh from the woodshed. "I reckon Pete's name just slipped out. I mean, hell, he was her man. And, hell, we rode with him for nigh on thirty years before he ... well, you know ... before he got himself planted over there in them trees."
Pecos turned a disgruntled look at Slash. He kept his voice down so he wouldn't be heard on the stoop from where Jay's sobs pushed softly through the door. "Come on, pardner, Pete's been dead almost five years now. We should be able to mention his name from time to time."
"Dammit, Pecos." Slash tossed his animal skin covers aside and dropped his bare feet to the timbered floor still owning the chill of the crisp mountain morning. "You an' I both know Pete didn't get himself planted in them trees over there. I did!" Slash jabbed his thumb against his chest that bore the hooked knife scar that gave him his nickname. "I'm the one that got him planted. My own damn carelessness did."
"It was a bullet from the gun of one of Luther Bledsoe's deputies that killed Pete, Slash, you stupid devil. Don't you start in with all this old Pete stuff now, too!"
"I didn't," Slash said, rising in disgust and grabbing his brown whipcord trousers off a chair. "You did!"
"Ah, hell!" Pecos twisted around and flopped belly down on his cot, burying his head in his pillow. His big Russian .44, snugged inside its brown, hand-tooled leather holster, hung by its shell belt hooked over elk horns mounted on the wall above his head, within an easy grab if needed. Such a move had been needed more than a few times in his and Slash's long careers as riders of the long coulees, or the owlhoot trail, as some called the life of a professional western outlaw.
Slash quickly stepped into his pants. Then his boots. He left his blue chambray shirt on the chair but he strapped his twin, stag-butted Colt .44s around his waist, which was solid as oak at his ripe age of fifty-seven, which he was not above crowing about to Pecos, who'd grown a little fleshy above the buckle of his own cartridge belt.
Slash rarely walked more than five steps without either the revolver or his Winchester Yellowboy repeater. As he grabbed his hat off the kitchen table his bone-handled bowie knife, also strapped to his shell belt, rode high on his left hip, behind the .44 positioned for the cross-draw on that side. He swept a hand through his dark-brown hair, still thick, he was proud to know, but well streaked with gray — especially up around the temples and in his long sideburns that sandwiched a broad, strong-jawed, brown-eyed face — the face of a handsome albeit middle-aged schoolboy.
One who'd spent the bulk of his life out in the blazing western sun.
That he was no longer a schoolboy, however, made itself obvious once again as it always tended to do upon his first rising. As he tramped across the kitchen, his hips and knees and ankles popped and cracked, stiff from too long in the mattress sack after too many years forking a saddle and sleeping on the hard, cold ground of one remote outlaw camp or another. An old back injury, the result of being thrown from a horse during a run from a catch party nearly twenty years ago, made Slash curse under his breath as he lifted the popping skillet off the range and slid it onto the warming rack, so the vittles wouldn't burn.
He pulled a couple of heavy stone mugs down from a shelf near the range and set them on the table. He dumped two heaping helpings of sugar into one, because he knew Jay liked her mud a little sweet —"Just like her men," she often quipped — then used a deer hide swatch to lift the hot black coffeepot from the range, and filled both mugs to their brims.
"Is Jay gonna be all right?" Pecos asked, his chagrined voice muffled by his pillow.
"Of course, she's gonna be all right," Slash said, heading for the door. "She's Jay, ain't she?"
He fumbled the door open and stepped out, drawing the door closed behind him with a hooked boot. Jay stood ahead and to his right, her back to him, staring out over the porch rail toward the lone grave on the knoll.
The sun glowed in her hair. Birds flitted about the sunlit yard around the cabin ringed with pine forest. Tall, stone escarpments flanked the place. The cabin, originally built by a hermetic, now-dead fur trapper, was situated here on this mountain shoulder in such a way that it couldn't be seen from any direction unless you rode right up on it. And the only way you were likely to ride up on it was either by accident or if you'd already known it was here and you were headed for it.
That's what had made the place such a prime hideout over the years. After a bank or train job, the Snake River Marauders, as Slash and Pecos's old gang called themselves, often split up their booty and then separated themselves into small groups of twos, threes, and fours, scattering and holing up till their trail cooled. They'd meet up again later at some far-flung, prearranged place to plan their next job.
Sometimes Slash, Pecos, and Pistol Pete, the old outlaw from the far northern Dakota country, would meet Jay in Mexico, and they'd spend their winnings in Durango, Loreto, or Mazatlán. Sometimes they'd sun themselves on the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, drinking pulque and tequila and feasting on spicy Mexican dishes like tortas ahogadas and chilorio.
Sometimes they'd hole up here for weeks or months at a time, hunting in the San Juans and the Sawatch to the north, and fishing and swimming in the pure, cold mountain streams. It was the time between jobs spent either here or in Mexico that Slash had always preferred over the jobs themselves, but he could never deny his almost primal attraction to the danger and excitement, as well as the money, that had always lured him back to the outlaw trail.
Now he set the cup of sugary coffee on the rail in front of Jay and kissed her tear-damp cheek. "Cup o' mud for you, darlin'," he said. "Put hair on your chest."
Staring toward the grave atop the knoll, Jay laughed at the old joke she and her old friend Slash had shared all the years they'd known each other — going on fifteen now — and offered her usual retort, "I don't want hair on my chest, Slash. That doesn't sound appealing to me at all!"
Slash gave a wry snort and sipped his coffee. "How you doing?"
"Look at me," she said, still staring toward the grave. "It's been how long, now? Going on five years? And I'm still pining for that man turned to dust under those mounded rocks over there."
"That's all right. He was a good man. He deserves pining for."
"Yes, he does, at that." Jay hardened her voice as well as her jaws as she turned to her old friend. "But it's time for me to move on, dammit, Slash."
"You're right on that score, too, Jay." Again, Slash sipped the rich black coffee.
"I'm still young ... sort of," she said with proud defiance. "I still have my looks. Or most of them, barring a few crowfeet around my eyes and a little roughness to my skin ... as well as to my tongue," she added drolly.
Slash looked at her, which was one of his favorite things to do. She was a slight, petite woman but with all the right female curves in all the right female places. She wore each of her forty-plus years beautifully on a face richly tanned by the frontier sun. The lines and furrows had seasoned her, refining her beauty and accentuating her raw, earthy character. Her hazel eyes were alive with a wry, frank humor.
She was the most sensuous and alluring woman Slash had ever laid eyes on, and he'd first laid eyes on her when she was well past thirty.
"Hellkatoot," he said. "You're still a raving beauty, Jay. There's not many women over forty who've kept their looks as well as you have. You'll find a man. You just gotta start lookin' for one, that's all."
Jaycee Breckenridge drew a deep, slow, fateful breath. "I'm not gonna find one out here, am I? The only men who come around here anymore are you and that lummox lounging around inside like Jay Gould."
"And you two don't deserve me," Jay said with another laugh.
"We sure don't!" Slash chuckled and shook his head.
Besides, he knew, they shared too much history. Good history and bad history. He'd once gotten his hopes up about Jay, a long time ago. But then she'd tumbled for the older, wiser "Pistol" Pete Johnson, five years Slash's senior, old enough to have been Jay's father.
She'd preferred the astuteness and assuredness of the older man. She'd been taken by the burly Pete's rough-sweet ways and his bawdy humor. Mere days after she'd met the man at the country saloon she'd been singing in, she never looked back. At least, not as far as Slash knew, and he thought he knew her as well or better than anyone on earth, now that Pete was gone.
"I'm so sorry, Jay," he said, looking off in frustration.
She frowned at him, puzzled. "For Pecos? Don't be silly. He only mentioned his old friend's name."
"No, not for Pecos." Slash turned to her. "For me."
Jay looked at him askance, with sharp admonishment. "Let's not go down that trail again, Slash."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cutthroats"
Copyright © 2019 J.A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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