JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WHERE VENGEANCE MEETS JUSTICE.
Tynan “Ty” Brannigan traded his tin star for a cattle ranch. But the men he left to rot behind bars have their own hash to settle with him . . .
KEEPING HIS OWN PEACE
Once a respected lawman in Kansas and Oklahoma, Ty Brannigan ended his career as town marshal of Warknife while he was still young enough to marry, start a family, and raise cattle. Now nearly sixty, he’s a proud husband, father of four, and proprietor of the Powderhorn Ranch on the outskirts of his old stomping grounds. It’s been close to twenty years since Brannigan hung up his six-guns. Now he’s more content wrangling cows than criminals.
But for every remorseless outlaw Brannigan put in jail, noosed, or left the vultures, he made even more enemies. Thieves and killers looking to settle old scores have tracked the ex-lawdog to his ranch. They’ve made the mistake of targeting his wife and children—only to discover that Ty Brannigan enforces his own law with a lightning-fast draw and a deadshot aim . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: June 28, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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William W. Johnstone
“Just incredible, Pa. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a finer horse anywhere.”
“He is something to look at, isn’t he?”
“He sure is.” MacKenna Brannigan lay beside her father near the crest of a rocky-topped ridge in the foothills of Wyoming Territory’s Bear Paw Mountains, a spur range of the Wind Rivers, near Baldy Butte. Ty and MacKenna were peering down into the valley on the other side of the ridge. “I could lie here all day, just staring at him and his beautiful harem not to mention those six colts of his.”
Tynan Brannigan, “Ty” for short, adjusted the focus on the spyglass he held to his right eye, bringing the big, impressive black stallion into sharper focus. The horse milled on the side of the next ridge, a couple of hundred feet up from where his harem languidly cropped grass with their foals along Indian Lodge Creek.
The big horse was watching over his herd, keeping an eye out for predators or rival herds led by stallions that might very well prove to be the black’s blood enemy. He was having a good time performing the otherwise onerous task. The stallion ran along the side of the ridge then stopped abruptly, swung to his right and dashed up the steep ridge to the very top. He ran along the crest of the ridge first one way before wheeling, mane and tail flying, the sunlight glistening beautifully in his sleek, blue-black hide, and running back the other way before swinging down off the crest and galloping full out down the side toward where his harem lifted their heads and turned to watch him, twitching their ears incredulously.
Ty and MacKenna were several hundred yards from the big black, but Ty could still hear the thunder of the horse’s hooves and the deep, grating chuffs the horse made with his powerful lungs as he ran.
The black slowed at the bottom of the ridge, near the stream, then went over and nosed one of the mares—a beautiful cream with a blond mane and tail. He nosed her hard, brusquely but playfully, then nipped the rear of one of the younger horses, a half-grown gray. The gray bleated indignantly. The stallion lifted his fine head and ripped out a shrill whinny. He put his head down, reared high, pawed the ground, then lunged into another ground-chewing gallop, making a mad dash up the ridge again.
MacKenna, who at seventeen was in the full flower of young womanhood, lowered the field glasses she’d been peering through and turned to her father, smiling. Her long hair was nearly as black as the stallion’s, and it shone in the high-country sunshine like the black’s did, as well. Her lustrous hazel eyes—her hair had come from her Spanish mother, but her eyes were the same almost startlingly clear blue-green as her father’s—flashed in delight. Her plump red lips stretched back from her even, white teeth. “He’s showing off, isn’t he? He’s showing off for the mares!”
Ty chuckled and lifted the spyglass again to his eye, returning his gaze to the black as the stallion stopped suddenly halfway up the ridge then turned to stand parallel to the ridge and peer off into the distance, ears pricked, tail arched, again looking for danger. “He sure is, honey.”
Ty was glad he and MacKenna were upwind of the beautiful stud and his harem. If they’d been downwind, the black likely would have detected him and the girl and hazed his brood out of the valley where Ty and MacKenna, having a rare father-and-daughter ride alone together, lay on the side of their own ridge, admiring the lovely, charismatic, bewitchingly wild black stallion.
“They’re just like boys, aren’t they—wild stallions?” MacKenna said, playfully nudging her father in the ribs with her elbow. “Showing off for their women.”
“Just like boys and men, honey,” Ty agreed, chuckling. He turned to look at MacKenna who was peering through the field glasses again. “Would you like to have a horse like that, baby girl?”
MacKenna, named after Ty’s long-dead mother, lowered the field glasses and turned to her father. Her thin black brows furled with speculation. Finally, she shook her head. “No.” She turned to gaze with her naked eyes into the next valley. “No, a horse like that needs to be wild. Breaking or even gentling a horse like that . . . civilizing him . . . would ruin him.” She glanced at her father. “Don’t you think, Pa?”
“I couldn’t agree more, Mack.”
“How did you find this herd, Pa? I’ve never seen wild horses out here.”
“Matt and I were hunting yearling mavericks on open range a few weeks ago, and we stumbled on several stud piles.” Matt was the oldest of Ty and his wife Beatriz’s four children, all of whom had been raised—were being raised, with the youngest at age twelve—on their Powderhorn Ranch in the shadow of several tall bluffs and mesas that abutted the ermine-tipped, higher peaks of the Wind Rivers.
MacKenna furled her dark brows again, curiously this time. “Stud piles?”
“Big piles of horse apples the herd leaders leave to mark their territory. Apparently, that big fella moved his herd in here recently. I’ve never seen stud piles in these parts before. Down deeper in the breaks of the Snowy River and in the badland country north of town, but never here.”
“So, they’re new in these parts,” MacKenna said, smiling in delight and gazing into the next valley through her field glasses again. “Welcome, black . . . ladies and youngsters.” She turned to her father. “Thanks for showing me, Pa. It leaves you with a nice feeling, seeing such beautiful, wild beasts, doesn’t it?”
Ty smiled and placed a big, affectionate hand against the back of his daughter’s neck. “Sure does, baby girl.”
MacKenna shook her head again. “No, it wouldn’t be right to try to tame a horse like that. Just like some men can’t be tamed, some horses can’t either.”
Her eyes acquired a pensive cast, and she lowered her gaze.
Damn, Ty thought. He’d brought her out here—just him and her—to try to take her mind off her heartbreak, not to remind her of it.
“Oh, honey,” he said, sympathetically. “He’s not worth how bad you feel.”
He meant the young, itinerant horse gentler, Brandon Waycross, who had once worked for Ty. MacKenna had tumbled for the rakishly handsome young man, five years her senior, one summer ago, and only a few months ago he’d broken her heart. Though they hadn’t made any formal plans, and MacKenna had never confessed as much, Ty knew that MacKenna had tumbled for young Waycross and had set her hat toward marrying the young man.
“I hope he is, Pa. Or I’m a fool, because I sure do feel almighty bad.”
“Even after what he did?”
MacKenna drew her mouth corners down and nodded, her now-sad gaze still averted. “’Fraid so.” She raised her eyes to Ty’s. “I don’t think he meant to betray me with Ivy. Some boys just can’t help themselves.”
“Don’t make excuses for him, MacKenna. He’s not a boy anymore. Brandon Waycross doesn’t deserve you. You hold tight, baby girl. You’re gonna find the right man—a good, kind, loyal man. That’s the only kind to share your life with.”
“Sometimes I feel like Ma got the last one of those,” MacKenna said, then leaned toward Ty and planted an affectionate kiss on his cheek.
Ty smiled, sighed. “Well, honey. It’s getting late and we’ve got an hour’s ride back to the Powderhorn. Don’t want to be late for supper or your mother will send us each out to fetch our own willow switches.”
“Ouch!” MacKenna said, grinning. “She doesn’t hold back like you do, either, Pa!”
“Believe me—I know!” Ty grin-winced and rubbed his backside.
He crawled a few feet down from the lip of the ridge, so the stallion wouldn’t see him, then donned his high-crowned brown Stetson and rose to his full six-feet-four. At fifty-seven, having married MacKenna’s mother when she was twenty-one and he was thirty-six, Ty Brannigan still owned the body of a Western horseman—tall, lean, broad-shouldered, and narrow-waisted.
Just by looking at him—into those warm eyes, especially—most would never have guessed he’d once been a formidable, uncompromising lawman in several formerly wide-open towns in Kansas and Oklahoma—a town tamer of legend. Ty had been the town marshal of nearby Warknife for three years and had cleaned out most of the hardcases during his first two years on the job, before meeting Beatriz Salazar, a local banker’s daughter, falling head over heels in love, and turning in his badge to devote the rest of his life to ranching and raising a family.
It had not been a mistake. Ty did not miss wearing the badge. In fact, he treasured every moment spent working with his wife and their four children, now between the ages of twelve and nineteen, on their eight-thousand-acre spread, even when the work was especially tough like in spring with calving or when Ty was forced to run rustlers to ground with his old Henry repeating rifle and his stag-gripped Colt .44, holdovers from his lawdogging days. That Colt was housed now in its ancient, fringed, soft leather holster and thonged on his right thigh. The Henry repeater was sheathed on the coyote dun standing ground-reined with MacKenna’s fine Appaloosa that Brandon Waycross had helped her gentle.
Ty didn’t like wearing the guns, but they were a practical matter. Wyoming was still rough country, and over Ty’s years as a tough-nosed lawman who’d sent many men to the territorial pen near Laramie, he’d made enemies. Some of those enemies had come gunning for him in the past, to get even for time spent behind bars or for family members who’d fallen victim to Ty’s once-fast gun hand. When more enemies came, and he had to assume they would, he owed it to his family to be ready for them.
So far, the Brannigan family plot on a knoll east of the big main house, was occupied by only one Brannigan—Ty’s father, Killian Brannigan, an old hide-hunting and fur-trapping mountain man who’d lived out his last years on the Powderhorn before succumbing to a heart stroke at age ninety. Ty didn’t want to join his father just yet. He had too many young’uns to raise and a good woman to love. At age forty, Beatriz was too young to lose her man and to have to finish raising their four children alone.
“Come on, baby girl,” Ty said, extending his hand to MacKenna. “Let’s fork leather and fog some sage!”
MacKenna accepted her father’s hand; Ty pulled her to her feet. An eerie whining sound was followed closely by a resolute thud and a dust plume on the side of the ridge, ahead and to Ty’s right. He’d felt the bullet curl the air just off his right ear before the crack of the rifle reached him.
“Down, honey!” Ty yelled, and threw MacKenna back onto the ground, throwing himself down on top of her, covering her with his own bulk then rolling off of her, pulling her on top of him again and rolling first her and then himself over the top of the ridge to the other side.
As he did, another bullet plumed dust within feet of MacKenna’s left shoulder, turning Ty’s insides into one taut, cold knot, sending icicles of terror shooting down his legs and into his feet.
“My God, Pa!” MacKenna cried when Ty had her safely on the other side of the ridge from the shooter. “What was that?”
“Keep your head down, honey!” Ty said, placing his left hand on her shoulder, holding her down, while pulling his stag-gripped .44 from its holster with his right hand.
“Who’s shooting at us, Pa?”
“Your guess is as good as mine!” Breathless, Ty edged a cautious glance over the lip of the ridge and down the other side.
His and MacKenna’s horses had run off, the coyote dun taking Ty’s rifle along with it. Fifty yards beyond where the horses had stood was a wide creek bed choked with willows, cedars, and wild shadbark and juneberry bramble. The shooter must have fired from the creek bed, hidden by the bramble. Ty saw no sign of him.
Turning to MacKenna, who now lay belly down beside her father, her face blanched with fear as she gazed at him, Ty said, “You stay here, Mack. And for God sakes, keep your head down!”
Ty started to crab down the side of the ridge. MacKenna grabbed his arm, clutched it with a desperate grip. “Pa, where you goin’?”
“I’m gonna try to work around the bushwhacking coward! You stay here.” He set down his gun to pat her hand that was still clutching his left forearm, and his normally mild eyes sparked with the hard light of a Celtic war council fire. Messing with him was one thing. Messing with his family was another thing altogether. “Don’t you worry. I’m gonna get him, Mack!”
He remembered the bullet that had plumed dirt just inches from her shoulder.
MacKenna, as tough as the toughest Brannigan, which would be old Killian, hardened her jaws as well as her eyes and said, “Okay, Pa. Go get him!”
Ty picked up his old but trusty Colt, crabbed down the sage- and rock-stippled ridge, then rose, turned, and hurried down the side at an angle to his right. A quick glance into the valley’s bottom told him the ambusher’s shot had cleared out the stallion and his harem of mares and foals.
The black would take no chances with his family. Neither would Ty Brannigan.
His heart thudding with the heat of his anger, Ty bottomed out at the base of the ridge and headed west. Just beyond the ridge lay another, brush-choked creek bed that connected the stream where the mares and foals were milling to the creek bed from which Ty believed the shooter had fired on him and MacKenna.
The big rancher followed a game path through willows into the creek bed, which was about five feet deep and threaded down its center by a narrow, shallow stream that smelled a tad skunky here in the late summer. He walked quickly along the edge of the murky water, heading north now, toward the intersecting creek bed.
He walked at a crouch, trying to make himself as small as possible, not easy for a man his size, the Colt cocked and aimed out from his right side. As he walked, prickly shrub branches and brambles reached out from the bank on his right to grab at his buckskin pants, blue wool tunic with laces halfway down the front, leather suspenders, and his neck-knotted red bandanna.
He kept a close eye on the intersecting ravine ahead of him, wary of more lead being fired his way.
He was twenty feet from the intersecting ravine . . . fifteen . . . ten. The brush-sheathed bank dropped away on his right, and he stopped, bent forward, peered off down the ravine through which the stream continued, the water following the ravine’s course as it angled off to Ty’s left, roughly fifty yards away.
This intersecting ravine was broader and deeper than the one Ty had just left, its banks peppered with rocks, Ponderosas, cedars, and junipers. As far as Ty could see, there was no sign of the shooter.
Had he pulled out?
The rancher began following the ravine’s course, keeping the cocked Colt aimed out from his right side. The dark water trickled along its stony bed, spotted with dead leaves and cattail down. When the stream hugged up tight against the base of the embankment on Ty’s right, he crossed it and walked along its left side, the bank on that side roughly ten feet to his left.
He’d just started to follow the ravine’s bend when he stopped suddenly, sniffed the air. The tang of horse and leather scented the nearly still, hot summer air.
He’d no sooner identified the aroma when a man shouted, “Hyahh!” and Ty saw a horse and rider burst out of a thicket dead ahead of him, not fifteen feet away. The rider whipped his rein ends against his horse’s left hip and the horse reared slightly, whinnied shrilly, laid its ears back, and bounded toward Ty.
As it did, the black-hatted man in the saddle fired a revolver along the right side of the roan’s neck. Ty felt the punch of the bullet in his left arm but still managed to snap off a shot just before the horse bulled into him and pitched him back into the shallow stream.
He landed on his back, splashing water and cursing then whipping up the Colt again, turning his body to follow the rider galloping off down the stream away from him. Ty cursed as he quickly lined up his sights on the man’s back and squeezed the trigger.
The Colt bucked and roared.
The bullet puffed dust from the back of the rider’s vest, between his shoulder blades. The man slumped forward in his saddle, rolled down the roan’s right wither, struck the ground, and bounced several times before piling up against a rock. He rolled onto his back with a groan and a sharp curse, gave a spasmodic jerk, and lay still, his pale forehead where his hat shielded it from the sun glowing brightly in the late afternoon sunshine.
He’d rolled onto his hat. The dark green bowler peeked out from between him and the rock, its crown crushed.
“Pa, you all right!” MacKenna cried.
Ty glanced to his left to see his daughter scrambling down the bank through the thick brush, the branches grabbing at her black hair and pulling it back behind her. It ripped her black, flat-brimmed hat off her head, but she left it where it lay at the base of the bank and ran into the stream, splashing the water high around her long, slender, legs clad in blue denim and black chaps to squat beside her father.
“Dammit, you’re hit!” intoned the hot-blooded girl of Irish-Spanish extraction, not minding her tongue.
Wincing against the pain, Ty inspected the bloody hole in his arm, up high near his shoulder. The hole was near the very outside of the muscular limb and a quick probe with his fingers, sucking air sharply between his gritted teeth, told him there was an exit wound.
“Not to worry, baby girl—it’s just a flesh wound. Went clear through. Hurts like blazes, but I’ve cut myself worse shavin’!”
“I’ll be the judge of that!” MacKenna lowered her head to closely inspect her father’s arm, glancing at first the exit wound and then the entrance wound. She puffed out her cheeks and looked at Ty. “Hurt awful bad, eh?”
“Nothin’ a few shots of Irish whiskey won’t cure.”
“Ma won’t let you drink.”
Ty smiled but it was mostly another wince. “I think she’ll make an exception for this though she might accuse me of tryin’ to get ambushed just for the whiskey. You’ll have to testify on my behalf.”
“Who’s the bastard layin’ over there?”
“Young lady, your tongue!”
“If Ma can make an exception for that arm wound, I think you can make an exception for my tongue . . . given the circumstances . . .”
Ty grunted his agreement with his passionate daughter. “Help me up, baby girl. Gonna go over an’ have a look.”
“Wait.” MacKenna removed her bandanna from around her neck, wrapped it around her father’s arm, over both wounds, and knotted it tightly.
Again, Ty drew a sharp breath against the pain.
“Cut yourself worse shavin’, huh?” MacKenna grunted at him reprovingly.
She draped her father’s right arm around her neck and helped hoist his big body up out of the water and mud. Ty stooped to retrieve his hat, which lay at the edge of the stream, the caved-in crown taking the shape of a horse hoof. He reshaped the hat, set it on his head, glanced at the dead man, and turned to MacKenna. “You’d best wait here. You don’t need to see him.”
“I’ve already seen him.”
Ty sighed and then he and MacKenna walked over to stare down at the bushwhacker.
He was obviously dead. Ty’s bullet had plowed through his back and out through his breastbone, likely shredding his heart.
Ty crouched to closely study the man.
He was medium tall and slender, some would say skinny, and he had long, dark-red hair that hung to his shoulders. His face was round and pudgy, with a pencil-thin mustache that did not match the rawness of his features. He wore a small, silver ring through his right ear, and a cheap, spruce-green, three-piece suit with a wool, rose-colored vest. On his bare right hand, that lay beside him, fingers curled over the palm, he wore a gold ring on his pinky.
A gold watch lay on the ground beside him, a gold-washed chain trailing from the near vest pocket. Ty picked up the watch, ran his gloved right thumb over the leaf-scrolling on the lid.
“Dandy,” Ty said. “At least, he was trying hard to be.”
The dead man, who appeared in his mid-twenties, looked like a farm or ranch hand who, having tired of all day forking a saddle for the usual thirty-a-month-and-found, had decided to try his hand at the pasteboard and poker way of life . . .
MacKenna frowned up at her father. “Do you recognize him, Pa?”
Ty shook his head. “I don’t recollect ever seein’ him before. I think I’d remember.” He dropped to a knee and, mainly using his right hand because his left arm was throbbing miserably, he went through the man’s pockets. He found only two combs, one larger than the other, a small, pasteboard-covered notebook with only blank pages remaining, a gray canvas tobacco pouch, a pencil stub, and a deck of cards residing with a few lucifer matches in his shirt pocket.
“Nothing with his name on it,” Ty said, sitting back on his heels. “And I don’t know him by lookin’ at him.”
MacKenna stepped forward, placed a hand on her father’s right shoulder, very lightly. “Don’t mean he doesn’t know you, though.”
Ty looked up at her and drew his mouth corners down. She was too wise for her years. But then, her wisdom had come from the regrettable experience of knowing that men had come for her father before. Ty had never talked to her about it, but he supposed she’d lived with the fear more would come again.
And now one had.
Ty just wished she hadn’t had to witness such a thing. None of his other kids nor Beatriz had—he’d been alone when others had tried to trim his wick—but now MacKenna had been a witness to the violence. Ty wrapped his good arm around her and pulled her close against him. He didn’t say anything, because there was nothing to say. Reassuring words would only sound hollow.
He rose and turned to her. “Why don’t you see if you can run down our horses, Mack? I’m going to see if I can run down this fella’s mount. I’ll take him to town tomorrow, turn him over to Chris Southern.” Southern was one of Ty’s closest friends and the current town marshal of Warknife.
“You got it, Pa.” MacKenna turned and started walking toward the embankment.
“You all right, Mack?” Ty called to her back.
She stopped, glanced over her shoulder at him, and gave him a crooked, reassuring smile, then turned her head forward and climbed the embankment.
Ty watched her with an expression of prideful admiration. She was tall for her age—tall like her father—and her figure was becoming more and more woman every day. A tough lady was Mack. “That one’s got the bark on. Always has, always will.”
MacKenna might have witnessed what had happened here today, and even nearly took one of those bullets herself. But the one Ty worried about was his wife, Beatriz. The woman was strong, but she’d been born to worry. She’d worry about Ty now. He wished there was some way he could not tell her but with the bullet hole in his arm, that would be impossible. Besides, she hated when he kept secrets from her, and he didn’t blame her.
Ty didn’t have to look far for the dead man’s horse.
He merely stuck two fingers between his lips and whistled. A couple of minutes later, the roan came walking around a bend in the ravine, reins trailing. Ty trained his own horses to come to a whistle, and he was glad the roan had been trained to do the same. He was doubly glad, in fact, because with the burning pain in his arm, he hadn’t had the energy to run the mount down.
Not long after the roan had returned, MacKenna rode up to the lip of the ravine bank, sitting the saddle of her Appaloosa and holding the reins of Ty’s coyote dun. Ty had just finished tightening the roan’s saddle cinch. Now he crouched over the dead man’s body, which he’d wrapped in the man’s own blanket roll. He’d gone through the man’s saddlebags and, as had been the case with the man’s pockets, he’d found nothing that identified him.
Which likely meant he was just some nobody with a grudge—often the most dangerous kind of man. He’d likely tracked Ty and MacKenna after they’d left the Powderhorn headquarters earlier. He’d come packing iron and the determination to exact a reckoning for past injury.
What injury might that be?
Ty had no idea.
“Hold on, Pa,” MacKenna said. “I’ll help you with that.”
“You stay there, Mack. This ain’t a job for a seventeen-year-old girl.”
MacKenna was already scrambling down the bank through the brush. “It ain’t a job for a fifty-seven-year-old wounded man, neither.”
“You’re as stubborn as your mother!”
“Thank you. On the count of three . . .” MacKenna had already crouched to take the man’s ankles in her hands.
“All right, all right,” Ty said, resignedly. “One . . . two . . . three!”
They each grunted as they hauled the dead man up off the ground, carried him over to the horse, and then, readjusting their grips on the dead man’s body, slung him belly down across his saddle.
Ty leaned forward to catch his breath and to wait for the pain the maneuver had aggravated in his arm to subside. He turned to MacKenna and said, “Now for the hard part.”
She frowned curiously at her father.
“Tellin’ your mother,” Ty said.
Ty leading the dead man’s horse by its bridle reins, he and MacKenna rode through two separate Bear Paw Mountain watersheds before mounting the bright, windy pass above Mooney’s Coulee.
As they started down the pass’s east side, their own Powderhorn Ranch headquarters lay spread out before them in a broad, tawny bowl nearly surrounded by a slanting mesa and three haystack buttes peppered with cedars and pines and backed in the misty blue distance by three snowy peaks of the Wind River range. Natural troughs in the sides of the buttes surrounding the ranch yard were lush with wild berry scrub including strawberries and raspberries, which Beatriz and MacKenna and young Carolyn preserved every fall after they’d harvested and canned or pickled their garden.
The two-story log house, which had become somewhat sprawling after Ty and Beatriz had added onto it over the years as their family had grown, sat off to the right of the large, age-silvered log barn, the stable and its two attached pole corrals, and the blacksmith shop and wagon shed, also built of logs gleaned from the surrounding mountains and valleys. The hea. . .
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