YOU ARE NOW ENTERING TEXAS. SAY YOUR PRAYERS.
The national bestselling western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone return to their bestselling Death & Texas series with a fresh new cover package.
DEATH ISN’T PRETTY
There are a million ways to die in the great state of Texas. And on the lawless streets of New Hope, the odds are even worse. Once the home of Comanche, the region has been up for grabs since the settlers drove off the natives. Now it’s a magnet for settlers looking for cheap land, merchants looking to exploit its resources—and outlaws looking for a place to hide in between robbing and killing. With shootouts and showdowns being a nightly occurrence, it’s one of the deadliest places on earth. And the governor ain’t happy about it. He wants to clean up the town. He wants to wipe away the scum. And he knows just the man to do it. . . .
Enter Cullen McCabe. A small-town sheriff turned special agent, McCabe doesn’t care what he has to do—or who he has to kill—to rid this hellhole of every rustler, robber, and ruthless cuss in sight. Especially the notorious Viper Gang. . . .
Release date: February 21, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 400
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Dark Is the Night
William W. Johnstone
“Mornin’,” Cullen returned. “Mr. Thornton, over at the store, said you have a telegram for me.”
“That’s right, I do,” Armstrong said. “It came in day before yesterday. I told Ronald to let you know if you came into the store, in case I didn’t see you.” He handed an envelope to Cullen and stood waiting, hoping Cullen might comment on the message. When he failed to do so, Armstrong commented, “We like to deliver telegrams as soon as we can, but with you not living in town, nothing we can do but hold it till we see you.”
“No problem,” Cullen said as he folded the telegram and stuck it in his pocket.
Armstrong was itching inside with curiosity about the quiet man whom no one in the little town of Two Forks knew anything about, except him. And the only thing he knew was that, from time to time, Cullen McCabe received a wire asking him to report to Michael O’Brien in Austin. The telegrams never said what the meetings were about, and the reason Armstrong was so curious was the fact that O’Brien was the governor’s aide. Of course, Ronald Thornton had dealings with McCabe, but according to Thornton, they always consisted of a minimum of words to place an order for supplies. The only noticeable difference in the size of his orders was whenever they came after he had received one of these telegrams from the governor’s office. And as Thornton had predicted, when Cullen returned to his store, after picking up his telegram, he placed a larger order for supplies than he normally did. Being the speculator that Thornton was, he guessed that the quiet man of few words had gotten another notice to travel.
When Cullen had completed his order, Thornton thanked him for the business, then commented, “From the size of that order, I’d figure you were fixin’ to take a little trip.”
“Is that so?” Cullen replied, and gathered up his purchases without further comment.
“I can give you a hand with those,” Thornton offered.
“Thanks just the same,” McCabe said, “but it’s no bother. I’ll just make a couple of trips. That way, you won’t have to stand out there holdin’ ’em while I pack ’em in the sacks on my packhorse.” As he said, he left half of the supplies on the counter while he rearranged his packs, then returned to get the rest as Clara Thornton came into the store. “Ma’am,” he said politely as he passed her on his way out.
When McCabe was out the door and in no danger of hearing him, Thornton greeted his wife. “He’s on the road again,” he said.
“Did he tell you that?” Clara asked, every bit as curious about the man as was her husband.
“He didn’t have to,” Thornton insisted. “I could tell by the order he placed. I knew when Leon said he had another one of those telegrams from the governor that McCabe would be gettin’ ready to travel.”
“Huh,” Clara snorted. “Maybe he just ain’t plannin’ to come into town for a while,” she offered sarcastically. “I declare, you and Leon Armstrong will have everybody in town thinkin’ Cullen McCabe is some kinda mystery man, just because he doesn’t talk much.”
“Is that so?” Thornton replied, standing at the front window now. “Then how come he’s headin’ straight to the blacksmith?”
“Maybe he needs something from Graham Price,” Clara suggested, again sarcastically. “Why does anybody go to the blacksmith?” She walked back to the front window to stand beside her husband to watch Cullen approach Graham Price’s forge. “You and Leon oughta take a lesson from him, so you wouldn’t gossip so much.”
“You’re just as curious as I am,” Thornton replied. “Don’t try to make out like you ain’t.”
The object of Thornton’s curiosity led his horses up the street and tied them at the rail in front of the blacksmith shop. Graham Price looked up from a wagon rim he was hammering out on his anvil. When he saw Cullen, he paused for a moment to say, “Howdy. Give me a minute and I’ll be right with you.” Cullen nodded, and Price continued to hammer out a section in the rim before dunking it in a barrel of water beside his anvil. “Yes, sir,” he said then. “Your name’s McCabe, ain’t it? What can I do for you?”
“I’m thinkin’ Jake here needs some new shoes,” Cullen said. “Can you take care of him this mornin’? I’m gonna have to take a little trip sooner than I expected. If you can’t, I’ll . . .”
That was as far as he got before Price interrupted. “No problem a-tall,” he said. “I can get right on it, if you wanna wait. It’ll take me a little while. Have you got someplace else you’ve gotta go while you’re in town?”
“I have,” Cullen answered. He didn’t expound on it, but he had planned to have himself a big breakfast at the dining room next to the hotel on this trip to town. It was something he had never treated himself to in Two Forks and he figured he’d see if they had a decent cook. “I’ll leave both horses here, but I think I’ll take most of that load off my packhorse. No sense in makin’ him stand around with all that on his back.”
“You can just put it over in the shade of that tree,” Price said, nodding toward a large oak at the back of his shop. “I’ll get started on your horse right away.”
“Much obliged,” Cullen said, and led the horse to the back, where he relieved it of most of the heavier sacks. That done, he walked up the street to the hotel and the Two Forks Kitchen beside it.
“Mornin’,” Porter Johnson greeted him when he walked in the door.
“Am I too late to get some breakfast?” Cullen asked.
“Almost,” Johnson replied, “but Gracie ain’t throwed out everything yet. She’s still got a little pancake batter left and we’ve got plenty of eggs and bacon. Set yourself down and I’ll go tell her to rustle you up something.” He started for the kitchen, then paused. “Pancakes, bacon, and eggs all right with you?” When Cullen said that would suit him fine if the eggs were scrambled, Johnson continued to the kitchen. When he returned, he was carrying two cups of coffee. “Mind if I sit down with you?”
“Don’t mind at all,” Cullen said. “I was afraid I’d gotten here too late to catch breakfast.” He had a feeling that the owner of the Kitchen was curious to find out more about him.
Johnson placed one of the cups before Cullen and sat down at the table. He didn’t take long to confirm Cullen’s suspicions. “Your name’s McCabe, ain’t it?” Cullen nodded. “I’ve seen you come into town a time or two,” Johnson said, “but I believe this is the first time you’ve come in here to eat.”
“That’s a fact,” Cullen answered simply, and tried a sip of the hot coffee.
“Ronald Thornton says you’ve got a place somewhere down the river,” Johnson went on, determined to get some information on the solemn man. “You got a family? We’re always glad to welcome new families to Two Forks.”
“Nope, no family,” was Cullen’s short reply. He could sense Johnson’s impatience, but he was not inclined to make small talk as a rule, and specifically not in Two Forks. The less people knew about him here, the better. His rough little cabin downriver from the town was not in an easy spot to find, and it served his purposes when he needed some peace and quiet between jobs. After a while in the solitude he preferred, however, he was usually ready to take on the governor’s next assignment for him. So he was gratified to discover there was a telegram waiting for him when he came into town today.
“You don’t strike me as a farmer,” Johnson commented. “You in the cattle business?”
“Nope,” Cullen answered, then sat back to give Gracie room to set a plate on the table before him.
“You’re lucky you came in when you did,” the stocky gray-haired woman said. “Porter came in the kitchen just when I was fixin’ to empty that batter into the hog’s bucket. So them’s the last of the pancakes. Big feller like you might want more. If you do, you’ll have to settle for cold biscuits.”
“I’m sure that stack is plenty,” Cullen said. “I ’preciate you goin’ to the trouble. They look mighty good.”
Johnson waited for Gracie to back away before continuing his questioning. “You ain’t farmin’ and you ain’t raisin’ cattle. What is your line of business?”
“Just one thing and another, I reckon,” Cullen replied.
“You don’t talk much, do you?”
“I reckon I’ve already talked a lot more since I sat down here than I figure I need to,” Cullen said. He was saved from further interrogation by Gracie O’ Hara.
“Porter, why in the world don’t you let the poor man eat his breakfast?” She stood, hands on hips, shaking her head. “How’s that coffee, honey?” she asked Cullen. “You need some more?”
“No, ma’am, not just yet.”
In spite of Gracie’s reproach, Johnson was about to continue, but was interrupted when the door opened and another customer walked in. Glancing up at Porter’s face, Cullen detected an obvious expression of irritation as he pushed his chair back and got to his feet. “Sonny, what are you doin’ back in here? Sheriff Woods told you not to come back here anymore. You still ain’t ever paid me the money to fix that table you busted up, and you was supposed to do that as soon as you got outta jail.”
“I’ll pay you the money when I get it,” Sonny said. “Right now, I’ve only got enough to eat some breakfast. And that stack of flapjacks that feller’s eatin’ suits my taste this mornin’.”
“You’re too late for breakfast,” Johnson said. “This feller here just made it before Gracie cleaned up the kitchen and started workin’ on dinner.”
“If you can feed him, you can feed me,” Sonny replied. “You owe me more than the trouble it takes to cook some flapjacks. After you went cryin’ to the sheriff about that little ruckus with them two cowboys, he locked me up for two nights.” He aimed a sassy smile in Gracie’s direction, standing near the kitchen door. “Get your sloppy old ass in there and cook me some flapjacks.”
“I ain’t got no more batter,” Gracie replied calmly. “Them’s the last of it.”
“You lyin’ old . . .” Sonny started, then stopped and eyed Cullen for a few moments, who seemed to be making an obvious attempt to ignore him. He grinned, thinking Cullen’s attention to his breakfast was really an attempt not to cause him any reason to come after him. “Never mind, old woman,” Sonny said, “I’ll just have them that feller’s fixin’ to eat. Bring me a clean plate.”
Cullen had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but evidently, he was getting an unwelcome introduction to the town bully. He put his knife and fork down and turned his attention to the smirking young man. “What’s your name, friend?”
“None of your damn business,” Sonny replied, still sneering defiantly, “and I sure as hell ain’t your friend.”
“His name’s Sonny Tice,” Gracie volunteered, “but it oughta be Sonny Trouble.”
Cullen nodded in response, then turned back to him. “All right, Sonny, it appears to me that you ain’t ever been taught how to talk to ladies. So, you owe this lady an apology for your rough language to her. And you also don’t know it ain’t polite to interfere with folks eatin’ their breakfast. Just lookin’ at you, I’d guess you went to the saloon before you decided to come here lookin’ for breakfast. So the best thing for you is to go back to the saloon and tell them you’re hungry. Most saloons can fix you up with something to eat, even at this time of day. It won’t be as good as these pancakes I’m fixin’ to eat, but maybe it’ll do till you get sobered up some.”
Sonny was struck dumb for a few moments, astonished to hear the calm scolding coming from the stranger. Finally, he found his voice again. “Why, you dumb prairie rat,” he blurted. “You’re fixin’ to get your ass whupped.”
Still calm, Cullen shook his head impatiently. “There you go again. You haven’t heard a word I’ve been tryin’ to tell you. You’re gonna have to get outta here now.” He paused. “After you apologize to the lady.”
“Like hell I will!” Sonny responded, and reached for the .44 on his hip. Anticipating his move, Cullen grabbed Porter Johnson’s coffee cup and threw the contents into Sonny’s face, coming up out of his chair at the same time. When Sonny reeled, Cullen drove his shoulder into him, driving him backward to land on the floor. Still trying to draw his pistol, even though flat on his back, Sonny looked up at the formidable man standing above him, his weapon in his hand.
“Is it worth dyin’ over?” Cullen asked calmly when Sonny started to pull his .44. Sonny realized at once that he had no chance. Scowling at Cullen, he raised his hands in defeat.
“All right,” Sonny said. “You got the jump on me this time. I’m goin’.” He started to roll over and get up from the floor.
“Hold it!” Cullen ordered, and cocked his Colt .44. “Apologize to the lady first.”
Straining to contain his anger and embarrassment, Sonny nevertheless said, “I’m sorry, Gracie.” He glared back at Cullen. “Now can I get outta this dump?”
“Yep, and when you think about it some, maybe you’ll change the way you treat people,” Cullen said, and turned to go back to his chair.
“McCabe!” Gracie screamed. Cullen looked back to see Sonny standing in the doorway, his pistol aimed at him. There was no time to think. He fired at almost the same time Sonny pulled the trigger and felt the sting of the bullet that grazed his upper arm. About to fire a second shot, he hesitated when Sonny’s gun fell from his hand and he dropped to his knees, already dead from the shot in his chest. With his eyes seeming to be staring into the next life, Sonny remained on his knees for a few moments before he collapsed onto his side. Cullen returned his .44 to his holster and remarked calmly, “Sorry about that. There wasn’t much else I could do.”
Stunned, Porter Johnson could do nothing but stare until Gracie broke his trance. “You’re shot!” she exclaimed to Cullen.
He looked down at his arm. “I reckon I am,” he said, “but it ain’t much, just a graze.”
“You might need to see Doc Taylor. Better let me take a look at it,” she said. When Cullen said it was nothing, she insisted. “Slip outta your jacket and take your shirt off.” He could see there was no use in arguing with her, so he let her take a look at the wound. As he had said, it was a minor creasing of his skin, doing more damage to his shirt and jacket than it did to his arm. She led him into the kitchen and cleaned the wound with a wet cloth before tying a clean cloth around his arm.
He was still in the process of buttoning the shirt when Clyde Allen, the owner of the hotel, walked in with the sheriff. Seeing Johnson still standing there looking at the body of Sonny Tice in the doorway, the sheriff exclaimed, “What the hell, Porter? What happened here?”
“That ain’t my doin’,” Johnson replied. “He drew down on McCabe and McCabe done for him.”
“McCabe?” Sheriff Woods asked, “Who’s McCabe?”
“That would be me,” Cullen said, coming from the kitchen when he heard them talking.
Not waiting for Cullen to offer any explanation, Gracie spoke up. “That foulmouthed bully finally ran up against somebody who wasn’t afraid of him. He waited till McCabe turned his back and then he drew down on him. He got what he deserved.”
Calvin Woods turned back to Johnson. “Is that what happened, Porter?” Johnson replied that it was, but he went into more detail, describing the incident as it actually happened with emphasis on the quick reactions demonstrated by Cullen. After listening to his accounting, the sheriff said, “I reckon it was bound to happen. Sooner or later, he was gonna pick on the wrong man.” He looked at Cullen. “Well, looks like there ain’t no doubt it was self-defense, McCabe. What’s your first name?” When Cullen replied, Woods asked, “When I go back to my office, I don’t reckon I’ll find any paper on Cullen McCabe, will I?”
Cullen smiled. “Reckon not.”
“I’ll tell Walter Creech to pick up the body,” Woods said. “Then I suppose I’ll have to ride out to tell old man Jesse Tice his youngest son is dead. That ain’t something I look forward to. He ain’t gonna take it too well, so if I was you, I’d make myself scarce, and I mean like right now. Sonny’s got two brothers and his death ain’t likely to set too well with ’em. And I don’t want another shoot-out in my town, so the best thing for you to do is to get outta town.”
“I’ll be glad to,” Cullen said. “Just as soon as Graham Price shoes my horse, I’ll be on my way. He ain’t likely finished yet, and I’ve got some pancakes that are pretty cold by now, but I might as well eat ’em, since I’ve gotta wait, anyway.”
Woods reacted with a look of disbelief. “Mister, I don’t think you’re catchin’ my drift. I’m tryin’ to save your life. Those Tice boys are gonna come lookin’ for the man that killed their brother. That ain’t a guess, and I ain’t sure I’ll be able to protect you. It’ll make my job a helluva lot easier if you ain’t here.”
“I ’preciate what you’re tellin’ me, Sheriff, and like I said, soon as Price finishes with my horse, I’ll be on my way. I don’t want trouble any more than you do.”
Woods shook his head, exasperated with Cullen’s apparent lack of urgency. “I’ll take my time ridin’ out to Tice’s place, but I damn sure have to tell the old man about it pretty soon. I’d rather not have him find out on his own and wanna shoot up the town over it. Gimme a hand, Porter, and we’ll drag Sonny out the door, then I’ll go get Walter to pick him up.” Cullen sat back down at the table to finish his breakfast. Clyde Allen, mute to that point, said he would help. Cullen heard Woods mumbling to them as they carried the heavy carcass outside. “It’s bad enough havin’ gunfights in the saloon without us startin’ to have ’em in the dinin’ room.”
Gracie came to stand beside Cullen. “Sorry ’bout your pancakes. I’m warmin’ up some syrup on the stove. Maybe that’ll help ’em a little bit.”
“Much obliged,” he said. “How far is Tice’s place from here?”
“’Bout four miles or so,” she said. “Calvin was tellin’ you the truth about the Tice boys.”
“I believed him,” Cullen assured her, “but I can’t go till the blacksmith’s through with my horse. Maybe it’ll take the sheriff a little while to go out to tell Tice. And it’ll take Tice a little while to come back here lookin’ for me. And I ain’t had my breakfast yet, so I might as well eat.”
She had to chuckle. Shaking her head, she said, “McCabe, you’re one helluva strange man. I wonder if you care whether you live or die.”
“I don’t,” he said softly. She chuckled again, with no way of knowing the truthfulness of his short reply, or that it was the primary reason he was the one man so qualified to do the job the governor hired him to do.
It was a little before noon when Cullen picked up his horses at the blacksmith’s shop. As he had promised Sheriff Woods, he rode straight out of town, taking the road north to Austin. It was a full day’s ride to that city, so he planned to arrive there before noon the following day. Gracie had said it was four miles out to Jesse Tice’s farm. That should give him enough time to put a good bit of distance between him and the Tice boys by the time they rode into town. Had he been a little more thorough when looking into the situation, he might have asked her in which direction the Tice farm lay. As he was to find, Jesse Tice’s farm was north of Two Forks about four miles, just off the road to Austin. He got his first clue when he met Sheriff Woods on his way back to town.
“McCabe!” Woods blurted when he pulled up before him. “Where the hell are you goin’?”
“Austin,” Cullen answered matter-of-factly.
“I thought you had a place south of town somewhere,” Woods exclaimed. “Are you just lookin’ for trouble?”
It took only a moment for Cullen to figure out why the sheriff was upset with him. “You’re fixin’ to tell me the Tice place is north of town, right?” Woods didn’t answer, but his expression of disbelief was sufficient to tell Cullen he had guessed correctly. “Right off this road, I expect,” Cullen continued, and received a nod of confirmation. “Are they right behind you?”
“No,” Woods said, “but they won’t be long in comin’. They’re about as riled up as you would expect. I told ’em there were two witnesses to the fight, and Sonny pulled his weapon first. But it didn’t do much to settle the old man down. I warned ’em that I didn’t want any trouble in Two Forks over this, and Jesse said he was comin’ in to get his son. I told him there ain’t no law against that.” He paused to look behind him before continuing. “But, mister, you’d best get movin’ now. You ain’t even a mile from the trail that leads to the Tice farm. If you don’t wanna meet Jesse and his two boys, you’d best let that bay feel your heels.”
“Pleasure talkin’ to ya, Sheriff,” Cullen responded, then promptly took the sheriff’s advice and nudged Jake into a brisk lope. He had no desire to thin the Tice family out any more than he had already, so he held Jake to that pace until he was past a trail leading off toward the river. He guessed that to be the trail to the Tice farm and he continued on for another couple of miles before he reined Jake back to a walk. He counted himself fortunate to have avoided a meeting with Jesse Tice and his two sons. He hoped that he hadn’t caused trouble for Sheriff Woods and the folks in Two Forks. He had no regrets for the killing of Sonny Tice beyond the trouble it might cause them. Sonny had made his choice and he paid for it with his life. What Cullen did regret, however, was the sudden notoriety cast upon him in a town where he didn’t exist, as far as most of the population had been concerned. Prior to this day, he had only an occasional business relationship with Ronald Thornton and Leon Armstrong, and that was the way he preferred to keep it. Now he was known by half a dozen people. I wonder if I should have let Sonny have the damn pancakes, he thought, but decided it would have only emboldened the young bully to challenge him further. What’s done is done, he told himself. The only thing for me to do is report to Michael O’Brien at the governor’s office and get on with whatever he’s called me in for.
Sheriff Woods saw them ride into town, their horses laboring as they pulled them to a hard stop in front of Walter Creech’s shop. He left his office and hurried over to intercept them. Seeing the sheriff, Jesse Tice demanded, “Where’s my son?”
“Just like I told you, Mr. Tice,” Woods replied. “I had Walter Creech take care of the body, so it wouldn’t come to no harm. He’ll turn him over to you. There ain’t no charge or nothin’.”
“Damn right there ain’t,” Jesse said. “Now, where’s the man that shot him?” he asked as Creech walked out of his shop, having heard the commotion.
“You’re welcome to take your son, Mr. Tice,” Creech said. “I took the liberty to clean away some of the blood. It was about all I could do for him.”
“Go in there and see,” Tice told one of his sons, and Samson, the eldest, immediately obeyed. Tice turned back to the sheriff and demanded again, “Where’s the jasper that shot him?”
“I can’t say,” Woods answered. “He left town right after the gunfight, so I don’t know which way he went.”
“He went out by the stable, Sheriff.” Surprised, Woods turned to see Walter Creech’s six-year-old son pointing toward the north road to Austin, the road that Tice had just ridden into town. All attention turned immediately to the boy, who stood there grinning, still pointing north, thinking he had been helpful.
Creech quickly turned him around and sent him back inside the shop. “Go back to the kitchen with your mama,” he told him. “Go on, now,” he prodded when the boy was reluctant to leave. A glance in Woods’s direction told him the sheriff was not pleased with the boy’s efforts to help.
“I just rode in on that road!” Jesse Tice bellowed. “How long has he been gone?”
“I don’t know,” Woods answered. “He lit out right after the gunfight,” he lied.
Samson came back out the door at that moment, so Jesse waited to hear what he had to say. “Sonny’s in there,” Samson reported. “He’s laid out on a. . .
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