The national bestselling western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone bring us another Ty Brannigan western with a unique and American brand of justice.
JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. TIME TO KILL.
Former lawman Ty Brannigan tries to rope in some skittish cattle rustlers at his family ranch—and uncovers a nest of scheming bank robbers. Looks like he’s going to need a bigger rope . . .
DOOMSDAY IS COMING.
Something fishy is going on with the beef at Circle P. After a quick-and-dirty shootout with a small band of rustlers, Ty Brannigan and his son Matt do another count of their cattle—and find they have fifty heads more than before. Seems the rustlers were hiding stolen cows from other ranches among the Brannigan herd. And that’s just the tip of the cowpie. In jail, the rustlers rat out their partners to the local marshal. They’re not just stealing cattle. They’re plotting the biggest bank robbery in the county’s bullet-riddled history. And this time, they’re going to make a real killing. . . .
Months in the planning—and just days away—the countdown to doomsday has begun. Ty, Matt, and the town marshall must race against time to track down the robbers before they strike—or innocent people will die. But the Brannigans aren’t afraid of danger. When the clock runs out—and the shooting starts—every man’s days are numbered . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: August 22, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 352
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A Month of Doomsdays
William W. Johnstone
“You got him, Pa!” Matthew Brannigan threw his arm up high in the air to show his appreciation. It almost got him unseated. His horse veered close to a post oak with a low-hanging branch. The nineteen-year-old ducked at the last instant. Twigs cut at his face and hand but did not slow his exuberant advance.
“Herd him,” Ty called. “The ground’s turning rocky. I don’t want him busting a leg.”
Matthew raked his heels against his horse’s flanks and cut off the steer as it tried to double back in front of his pa. This tactic was instinctive. The rope would tangle up the dun’s legs and give a faint hope of escape, as if the steer had anywhere to go other than the Powderhorn Ranch’s wide open grasslands.
Ty let his horse dig in its heels. The rope snapped taut. Together with his son blocking any other possible escape, the steer was caught well and good. The sudden yank on the rope took it off its feet. With a heavy thud, it landed on its side.
“Hogtie him, Pa?”
“No reason to do that. This isn’t a rodeo, and that’s no calf. You’d get yourself gored if you mess with him.”
“He’s powerful mad,” Matt agreed.
“Give him a second to cool off. He’s remembering earlier times when things didn’t go well for him. Get him back to the herd. He’ll twig to the fact that we’re not branding him like was done a couple seasons back.” Ty sent a ripple along the rope to loosen the loop. The Circle P brand shone brightly on heaving hindquarters turned up to the afternoon Wyoming sun as if it was made from the purest silver.
Ty tossed his end of the rope to his son.
“Where are you going?” Matthew secured the end of the rope around his saddle horn. He had trained his tobiano mare over the past six weeks. When roundup came in a few months, he’d show off the best cutting horse on the Circle P.
Ty dropped to the ground and stretched his 6-foot-4 rangy frame. A quick sweep took the high-crowned brown Stetson off his head so he could enjoy some of the breeze sneaking down from Baldy Butte. It wasn’t that hot a day, but he tired out quicker these days, even if fifty-seven wasn’t that old. At least he told himself that was only half a lie. He unfastened his red bandanna from around his neck and mopped a flood off his wrinkled, leathery forehead.
“You doing all right, Pa?”
“Not getting much sleep at night,” he said. Ty declined to tell his oldest son any more. His darling wife Beatriz was working him the livelong night after he put in a hard day on the range. The Circle P wouldn’t take care of itself, and neither would his wife’s desire to have another baby.
Just one more, she said, to keep her from feeling old. At forty, Beatriz wasn’t old, not like he felt at this instant, but he hadn’t been able to convince her of that. She wasn’t one to give in easily—or ever give up. That was something he admired and loved in her.
Ty worried that if his wife got her way, he wouldn’t see the child grow up. He’d be almost eighty by the time the kid could vote. Working ranchers seldom made it that far, and the way he felt right now, Ty wasn’t sure he’d make it to his next birthday. He’d wrenched his shoulder just lassoing the steer all filled with bovine wanderlust.
He watched his son ride away, guiding the wayward critter with assurance and considerable skill. He’d done well bringing up Matt and the rest of the Brannigan clan, even if they did give him headaches at times.
Ty knew he was a lucky cayuse. He had a decent ranch, more than a thousand head of cattle, and the best family any man could ever want. He was proud of each and every one of them.
He caught up his horse’s reins and walked to the top of a rise. The exercise got the kinks out of his legs, and even his throbbing shoulder felt a sight better. He looked out over his southern graze with some satisfaction. It was his. It was the Brannigan clan’s.
He jerked around as movement on the next ridge over caught his attention. Squinting, he pulled down his hat brim to shield his keen, blue-green eyes. This temporary shade let him more closely see the silhouette of a rider. It wasn’t unusual for men to pass through his land. Sometimes they stopped by the Circle P ranch house to pay their respects and other times kept riding. He didn’t much care, though Beatriz enjoyed fixing for a new face now and then. It broke up the daily routine and let her hear gossip from around the territory.
Ty was less inclined to like the company. Men on the move were usually running from something and going to any place that didn’t know their faces. More than once he had been like that. He’d left towns with no destination in mind simply because the horizon promised new freedoms. The difference between his wanderlust then and most of the men riding Circle P land was that he’d never been escaping arrest.
He shook his head. That footloose, easy philosophy had worn him down over a few years. By the time he’d put down stakes, he had become a deputy marshal and then a full-fledged, badge-toting lawman. For ten years he had gained the reputation of being a town tamer.
Meeting and befriending some of the fastest hands in the West had been pleasant, for the most part. Meeting and gunning down the ones who thought they were the fastest and were intent on proving it eventually brought him to Warknife and Beatriz Salazar, the fiery chile pepper daughter of the town banker. The day he had asked Beatriz to be his wife and she had accepted was the day he turned in his badge. That was twenty-one years ago.
He squinted a little harder and concentrated on the distant rider. Nostalgia was for old men. Ty Brannigan wasn’t that old. Not yet, by damn.
As he turned to mount, he stopped and took another, harder look.
“Another rider. Both of them are looking out in yonder direction.” He craned his neck around to figure what held those gents’ attention. His eyes were not up to the task. The purple, hazy distance was only part of the problem, he realized.
“I need to remember those field glasses,” he grumbled. Ty tried to see what they stared at so intently. He squinted hard, closed his eyes, and then popped open his eyelids.
Then he saw it.
“You miserable animal,” he muttered. He caught movement in the distant waist-high grass. It might have been the breeze whistling down from higher altitudes, the wind that cooled him still. But he knew it wasn’t. He’d been a rancher too long not to recognize the rhythm of a calf breaking off from the herd and hunting for trouble.
Just like the steer Matt returned to the herd far off in the other direction, a calf was heading out to explore when it ought to stay with the herd.
Ty tugged on his horse’s reins, swung into the saddle, and headed for the grassy bowl with the wayward calf plowing its way to danger. Halfway there, he looked back at the ridge. The two riders were nowhere to be seen. To vanish that quickly, all they had to do was ride a few yards down the far side of the upland. A stray was none of their business, especially if they only traveled through. He told himself that, but somehow it didn’t set quite right and he couldn’t tell why.
He reached the bottom of the marshy land and slogged along in the calf’s wake. The grass was slowly returning upright to hide the path, but the calf was heading directly for an even lower section of land.
Ty caught his breath when he saw how the ground beneath his horse’s hooves changed with every step. The soggy earth was turning into real marsh. There had been heavy rains during the past week. If enough drained to the lowest part of the bowl, the mud might suck the calf in.
He rode on another fifty yards before the piteous shrieks reached him.
The sound made his horse jerk around uneasily. It was too close to the death cries of something in mighty big trouble. He reached for his rope, then cursed. Matt had it, and he hadn’t asked for his son to either use his own lariat or hand over the one still dangling from his saddle. Ty urged his horse forward but met with increasing reluctance. The mud sucked up past the fetlocks, making every step difficult and noisy. The horse was smart enough to know what danger it faced.
Ty reluctantly admitted he wasn’t as smart as his coyote dun.
Rather than get his horse bogged down, he drew rein and stood in the stirrups. He caught his breath. As he’d feared, the calf had blundered into a bog that slowly sucked it downward. It wasn’t quicksand, not exactly, but the more the calf fought, the worse its predicament became. By the time it outright panicked, it would be a goner.
Reaching it on foot was possible. He saw patches of drier land ahead. His horse wasn’t going to make it that far, but he could on foot. From there he had a chance to wrestle the calf out of its predicament.
He kicked free and dropped into water over the tops of his boots. He gingerly stepped to the side and found firm ground. From here he hopped from spot to spot, slipping and sliding along the way. His water-filled boots made it feel as if he had hundred-pound weights on each foot.
“I’m on my way. You stop fighting. Stop right now!” His advice to the trapped bovine only caused it to thrash about more.
The calf was already up to its belly in the sucking mud pit. Ty paused a few yards away and considered what his chances were of rescuing the valuable hunk of beef on the hoof. It’d be another year or two before it was ready for market, but it’d fetch top dollar. To be this close to saving it and simply give up would rankle like a burr under his saddle for years.
“Settle down now,” he said in as soothing a voice as he could muster. Ty wanted to shout, to rage at the dumb animal for not remaining with the herd in a perfectly fine pasture filled with succulent grass. Nothing he said would change the situation. Only action.
He judged how to approach the calf. It threw its head about and lowed in panic. Ty stepped to the edge of the dry patch closest to the calf. A quick step was all it took for him to realize his mistake. He sank up to his waist in the deep water. Sucking mud pulled at his boots.
Ty frantically grabbed. His arms circled the animal’s neck. This kept him from sinking more, but it also caused the calf to strain more to get away. He wasn’t sinking any farther but the calf was. And it began taking him down with it.
Instinct caused Ty to swing around, shove out his hips, and arch his back. With his arms circling the calf’s head he twisted it around as if he was bulldogging it. Huge muddy bubbles rose from below. He had broken some of the suction drawing the calf under. Continuing to turn, he tried to throw the calf onto its side. That would give both of them a chance to kick free and find more solid ground.
And it did.
With a screech of triumph, the calf jerked free of Ty’s grip and landed hard on its side on a dry section. It scrambled and kicked and fought and found its feet on compact soil. Without so much as a backward look at its rescuer, the calf raced off along a firm section, heading for the grass that had lured it into this trap.
Ty let out a whoop of glee. He had saved the blundering animal. Then he realized there was another blundering animal caught in the mud.
He tried to float, to get parallel with the hidden mire. The mud held him too firmly. Worse, he felt as if it was a huge animal slowly swallowing him down its gullet. The pressure drawing him under was more powerful than anything he’d ever fought—and he was losing inch by inch.
Ty jerked from side to side but failed to break the suction that had pulled down the calf. As he splashed about, he looked up and saw salvation.
“Hey, help!” His shout echoed through the shallow bowl. “Over here. I’m caught. Pull me out!”
The two riders, likely the ones he had spotted on the ridge above, forked their horses and just stared.
“I’m being drawn under. Get me out!”
The riders never budged. Both men’s faces were hidden in shadow cast by the towering cottonwood next to them.
“Throw me a rope. Help!” Ty held down panic as he realized neither man was moving to help. All either had to do was secure one end of a rope to the huge tree and cast the lasso out to him. He was close enough. If they did that, he’d be able to pull himself out.
They didn’t even have to exert themselves.
The mud crept up to his thighs. The suction increased. The water sloshed up across his chest and threatened to gag him.
Ty reached under the surface of the filthy water and found his stag-gripped Colt .44. He pulled it free of the water and shook out as much water as he could. Then he took aim. His first shot knocked splinters off the tree trunk to the right of one rider. The man flinched.
The two of them exchanged heated words. Ty shouted for them to help. They turned back and stared at him. Neither moved a muscle to help. This time he didn’t aim to get their attention. He aimed to take them out of the saddle.
The hammer fell on a punk round. Water had ruined that cartridge. And the next and the next, which made a dull pfft!
The two men wheeled their horses around and trotted off, as if they didn’t have a care in the world. Tynan Brannigan watched until their backs vanished. Then he expended the last of his strength trying to pull free.
Water lapped around his mouth, his cheeks, up his nose. He sputtered out his final word: Beatriz.
Heaven wasn’t anything like Ty had ever imagined. It smelled bad and was dark and burned his eyes and . . . it stunk.
Realizing that made him laugh. Heaven stunk to high Heaven.
As he laughed, he choked and spat out a mouth filled with slime. He fought and heard distant voices. Not choirs of angels. A frightened voice, yet one speaking only to him.
“Come on, Pa. Sit up. Open your eyes.”
Hands shook him. Hard. He felt muddy ooze run down his face and drip off his chin. He swiped at it. Somehow his hands still worked. For some reason he had always thought they wouldn’t in Heaven. But that was crazy. Everyone in Heaven played a harp. He didn’t like harp music, especially not for all eternity.
The persistent voice returned. Something rubbed against his face. He reached up and tried to push it away, but his hands failed. Irritation flared.
“Pa. You’re all right.” A cloth scrubbed his face and cleared his eyes. He blinked against the sunlight.
“It’s Wyoming,” he said, the truth beginning to bring him around. He spat again and pushed his Stetson back on his head. Eyes took a few more seconds to focus. “My boots are gone.”
“I’ve got them, Pa. They came off when I was pulling you out of the bog. I swear, they had a hundred pounds of mud in each of them.”
He spat a final time and took the boots from his son. For a moment Matthew was reluctant to give them to him, then relented.
“I found your six-shooter, too. You threw it out. Why’d you go and do a thing like that?”
“You didn’t hear me firing it?” Ty accepted his Colt and examined it. He had no recollection of heaving it away while he was caught in the mud, but when shooting the two who watched him sink failed, it must have been an instinctual reaction. They’d ridden off without so much as a fare-thee-well, leaving him to die. If he wasn’t able to blow them out of the saddle, he’d try to brain them with his flying pistol.
“I might have heard a shot, but sounds in this hollow are weird. The wind blows, and it sounds like someone’s moaning. The grass whips around, and there’re rocks with crevices that make it hard to hear anything. It’s a good thing I did hear that calf.”
“It’s back in the herd?”
“All safe and sound,” Matt assured him. “It came sauntering out all frisky and covered with mud. That’s what got me to wondering where you’d gotten off to.”
With an arm around his shoulders, his son helped him stand.
“They . . .” Ty started to condemn the two riders, then held his tongue. Burdening his son with what’d happened had consequences. Matt was sure to tell his ma about the rescue. Ty wanted to avoid having to explain to Beatriz how two owlhoots abandoned him the way they had. She got worked up enough. Once angry, his darling wife took a long time to cool off. After all he’d been through, all Ty wanted now was for some peace and quiet.
As if that was even halfway possible with those two devils riding free on Circle P land.
He looked at the mud-caked Colt .44. Peace and quiet would be good so he had a chance to clean and oil his six-shooter. And reload with fresh ammo.
“There’s a stream not far from here with clear running water,” Matt said. “Ma’s gonna ask a lot of questions about how you got so filthy.”
“I need to clean up for my own sake. The mud is drying out and it itches. Everywhere.” He squirmed about. It took all his willpower not to scratch where it itched the most.
Together they walked out of the boggy area to the edge of the meadow where the Circle P cattle grazed contentedly. They neither knew nor cared that their owner had come within a hair of dying. Now all they noticed was the way he stunk from the filthy mud caking his clothing.
Ty looked for the calf that had caused all the trouble. It blended in among dozens of other calves. The way he felt, if he had picked it out, there would have been one hellacious dinner of thick steaks for a week on the Brannigan dinner table.
“I’ll get those boots clean,” Matt said. “I think they’ll be all right if I clean them and you get them on while they’re still soaked. You don’t want them to dry unless your feet’re in them. Otherwise, they’d shrink down to a size too dinky for even Caroline to wear,” he said, meaning his younger sister. The twelve-year-old had small feet in a family where they were all above average height with equally sized feet.
The stream called to Ty. He stripped off his muddy clothing, leaving on only his balbriggans. He washed his shirt and suspenders the best he could. Wiping mud off his buckskin pants proved easier. The hide chased off dirt and seldom needed cleaning. A quick glance showed him where Matt sat cross-legged under a cottonwood tree, using handfuls of grass to wipe away the mud from his boots.
When he got to town, he’d have the bootmaker give them a fresh cleaning with plenty of polish. Those were expensive boots and worth every cent he had paid. They’d lasted him five seasons already, and two of those years were blizzard winters. Properly cleaned and saddle-soaped, they’d be good enough long enough for him to be buried in.
He intended that time to be a fair amount of time down the road.
Ty splashed around in the water, then found a broad, slick rock and slowly slid along it until he floated face up with the current rushing past. He half closed his eyes and relaxed. Mind drifting along with his body, he remembered the two riders who had left him to die.
He opened his eyes and sat up with a start. Two men stood on the bank, their horses’ reins in hand. As the two had done before, they watched him in eerie silence.
Ty’s hand went for his six-gun. He splashed water rather than pulling the iron that remained on the stream bank.
“I declare, Kennard, we got ourselves—what do you call them sea critters that sun themselves on a rock?”
“Mermaids,” the one called Kennard said. “I read myself a book once all ’bout them, Ron.” He grinned, showing two broken teeth and another that had been repaired with gold.
“Naw, that can’t be. He ain’t no mermaid. Are there mermen?”
“Don’t see why not. Where’d all the little merbabies come from if there wasn’t?” Kennard rested his hand on his holstered six-shooter.
Ty stood slowly. Even dripping wet and almost naked he was an imposing figure. He towered above the two men on the stream bank. More than once when he worked as a lawman, he had stared down a drunk intent on shooting up a saloon. Once he had bluffed the Pecos River Kid into backing down in spite of his six-shooter not being loaded. Town tamer was a moniker he’d come by honestly.
But now he was in his underwear and without a pistol facing down the two men who’d almost certainly left him to die before.
“Have I seen you two before?”
Kennard glanced at his partner, who giggled like a little girl.
“He wants to know if our paths have crossed, Ron. What do you think? Have our paths crossed before this very instant? I ain’t got a good recollection of that, myself.”
Ron moved to slip his iron from the hard leather holster tied down at his right hip.
“That’s a distinct possibility, Kennard.” Ron moved as if dipped in molasses as he started to pull his gun. With the pistol only halfway out, he froze.
For good reason.
The heart-stopping sound of a Henry rifle cocking came from behind him.
“So you know him? You know Mister Brannigan?”
Kennard looked over his shoulder. His and Matt’s eyes locked, both peering down the long barrel of the Henry repeater. The only difference was that Ty’s son was on the end shooting the rifle. His finger curled around the trigger so tight that his knuckle turned white. The eye staring down the length of the rifle aligned the back notch and the bright front bead centered on Kennard’s forehead.
“Take him out first, son,” Ty said. “You’ll have plenty of time to put another round in his partner. His hand’s shaking. Isn’t it, Ron? Are those nerves you’re showing?” Ty knew how to put the fear into an opponent. “That makes you slower. I’ve seen it a dozen times.”
“There’s nothing wrong with my reflexes,” Matthew said. “And I’m about the best shot within a hundred miles.”
“Do you want him to prove it, gentlemen?” Ty saw both gunmen considering their next move.
They decided right.
“We’ve watered our horses. Let’s clear out,” Kennard said. “There’s no call putting up with unneighborly folks like these two.”
“They’re called Brannigan, ain’t that right?” Ron’s hand shook even more. He judged distances and his chance of throwing down, spinning around and shooting Matt before the boy pulled back on the Henry’s trigger.
“Enough, Ron.” This time Kennard’s words carried an edge. He was smarter than his hotheaded partner, not that either of them showed a lick of sense confronting the man they had left to die, even if he was close to naked as a jaybird.
Ron grunted in response. He stepped up. Kennard mounted quickly. Ty was glad to see that his son remained alert the whole time. These sidewinders were dangerous. An instant’s distraction would have set them off, hands flashing to their well-used smoke wagons. They trotted away, again not saying a word.
Ty suspected they had ridden together so long that there wasn’t much left for them to talk about—other than who to kill next.
“What was that all about?” Matthew asked. “They acted like they knew you and had it in for you.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen them before,” Ty said, hating himself for the half-lie. If he had to positively identify, to swear on a Bible that this was the pair who had left him to die in the bog, he wouldn’t be able to do it. But in his gut, he knew they were the ones.
“You’ve got a herd of cutthroats gunning for you after all the years you spent as a marshal,” his son said. “Maybe they were harkening back to those days when you tossed them in the poky?”
Ty shook all over like a dog, scattered bright water droplets everywhere, and stepped from the stream. The breeze had picked up, chilling him now. Gooseflesh rippled along his arms and torso, but he wasn’t sure it came from the wet and wind. Men rode his range, and he needed to protect his family from them.
Watching his own back was part of that from what Ron and Kennard had said.
“The herd’s moving out of the pasture and heading south,” Matt said. “You want to keep hunting for strays?” He looked up at the sun, now sinking low in the afternoon sky.
“Head on back,” Ty decided. He dressed quickly. Strapping his six-shooter around his middle relieved some of the strain he felt. He might be getting up there in years, but his hand was still as sure as his aim, and his reflexes were the match of most of the new crop of gunmen.
Men like Kennard and Ron were better served shooting him from ambush rather than facing him down. What worried him the most was that the kind of varmints they were saw n. . .
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