Reformed outlaw Carson Stone, in this razor-sharp Western, stakes his claim in the untamed, bloody Idaho Territory, only to find himself trapped in a bullet-riddled nightmare he may not walk away from . . .
Former thief and wanted man Carson Stone dreams of a peaceful life on a ranch built by his own hands, but dreams don’t always come without a steep price. To earn a stake, Carson rides west to collect the reward on a claim-jumper. The land is beautiful, but times are hard as the territory is ravaged by the latest Indian war and a mining boom gone bust.
When Stone steps in to defend a family ambushed by murdering marauders, he makes a terrifying discovery: one of the hired killers carries a death list full of names and dollar amounts. But the names on this list belong to upstanding citizens, not criminals. When the local sheriff is gunned down in broad daylight, Carson takes on the one job he never wanted—pinning on a lawman’s tin star to protect the innocent.
A gang of ruthless killers are storming back to finish their work—and Carson Stone has just moved to the top of the death list.
Release date: November 29, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 304
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Dead Man's Trail
Carson Stone looked down the Spencer rifle’s barrel at the shabby camp below. He huddled in his heavy wool coat under the low-hanging branches of an evergreen. Only September and already the nights were cold, the mornings slow to warm, a white mist creeping across the forest floor.
He fought off a shiver. Idaho sure ain’t Texas.
He panned left to right with the rifle, looking for signs of life among the circle of tents. Last night’s coals in the cookfire still smoked. A picket line stretched between two skinny ponderosa pines, three horses tethered there. It wasn’t the worst spot for a camp if a fella was looking to hide himself. Ten miles deep into the Payette Forest, up in the rocky foothills about thirty-five hundred feet. It wasn’t a place anyone would have happened upon by accident, an area at the top of a hill but surrounded on all sides by rock walls, like the indention of a thumb smashed into the top of a mashed potato mound.
They’d never have found the place if not for the Indian, a rangy Bannock on the run from Howard after the surrender. He’d given them detailed directions for a dollar. How the Indian had come to have the information Carson didn’t know, but he’d perfectly described the huge Bavarian, and there was no doubt it was the man they were after.
Carson glanced to his left to check Tate’s progress.
Colby Tate worked his way down the narrow crevice between two boulders. He’d be out of sight for a moment when he circled below Carson, but he wasn’t worried about Tate. The bounty hunter could take care of himself. Carson’s job was to cover him if anyone tried to hit Tate from his blind side.
How do I let Tate talk me into these things?
But Carson knew the answer. Money. Carson had ideas and plans, and very few of them came for free. He’d wintered as a cattle hand on a ranch in Colorado. When the spring thaw had rolled around, Tate had returned and said he needed help with a job. They’d tracked four cattle rustlers, brought them in alive and, after splitting the reward with Tate, Carson had made as much in three days as he had working the ranch all winter.
So, when Tate had taken off after a notorious murderer and robber, Carson tagged along. Half of a five-hundred-dollar reward was nothing to sneeze at. They’d chased the outlaw as far as Cheyenne, and the job had gone bloody. Carson had remembered why he’d wanted no part of bounty hunting, had sworn he was finished with it, but then the next job had gone smoother, and so had the one after that, and pretty soon both men looked up and found they’d stumbled into Boise.
That was where the local sheriff had told them about the Bavarian.
Tate disappeared from view, and Carson slowly swung the Spencer back the other way, eyes peeled for movement.
As Carson had already observed, it was a good place for a camp: hidden, sheltered from the wind, the only drawback being what Carson was doing right now. Shooting down into the sunken area made the place a killing ground. He could pick off ten of them before they even knew what was happening.
Of course, he’d have to spot them first.
And he doubted there were ten of them. Reports varied, saying the Bavarian rode with a few men or a dozen, depending on who was telling the tale and how much whisky they’d had, but Carson figured three horses meant three men.
On the other hand, there were four tents.
So who the hell could say?
Carson could see Tate below him now, one of his twin Colt Peacemakers in his hand as he crouched halfway behind a boulder, with a good view of the tents.
“I’d like to address the gentleman in the tents if I may,” Tate shouted. “I know it’s a bit early in the morning for unpleasant surprises, so if you’d please give me your full attention, we can get through this with as little bloodshed as possible. Your complete cooperation is absolutely crucial to your continued good health.”
Carson grinned. Colby Tate sure must love the feel of words flying out of his mouth because he never chose to say things fast and simple.
“I strongly suggest throwing your guns out first,” Tate continued. “Followed slowly by your person. It goes without saying that having your hands up and not making any moves that could be interpreted as hostile will serve to facilitate a smooth conclusion to this whole affair.”
Nothing. Somewhere in the distance, a bald eagle screeched.
“Indicating that you’ve heard my instructions and are hastening to comply would now be a good idea,” Tate called.
A moment later, “Just who in the hell are you?”
Carson couldn’t be sure which tent the voice came from.
“A fair question. My name is Tate and I’m a bounty hunter. My colleagues and I mean to collect the two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar reward currently being offered for Hans Mueller. This actually brings me to my next point. There’s no paper that I know of on anyone else here. If Mueller gives himself up without a fuss, we’ll leave without troubling the rest of you. I think that’s a very generous offer and I’d like to hear your opinion.”
A moment passed. “Opinion?” asked the same voice.
“Yes,” Tate said. “I’d like you to weigh in on my proposal. I don’t detect a German accent, so I take it you’re not Mueller, but rather one of his compatriots.”
“I ain’t Mueller,” the voice confirmed.
“Just so. I imagine it would save you and your other friends a good deal of stress if Mueller would give himself up without a lot of tedious shooting.”
“You go to hell, bounty hunter,” shouted a different voice.
Carson swung the Spencer to aim it at a tent two over from the first voice. He had a better fix on them now.
“These men are my friends. They won’t give me up without a fight.” Thick accent. The words sounded like Zese men are my vrends. Zey von’t giff me up vithout a fight.
“Now hold on just a minute, Hans,” the first voice said. “Let’s be smart about this.”
“I quite agree,” Tate said. “Listen to your friend, Hans.”
“Just do what the man says, Hans,” the first voice said. “You’ll take him peaceable like and he gets a fair
trial, right, mister?”
“As long as everyone cooperates,” Tate said.
“You hear that, Hans? Just play along with the fella.”
“You go straight to hell, Ralph McNally,Hans shouted. “This could be a trick. You want I should get shot?”
“I’ll shoot you my own damn self,” Meriweather shouted back. “I know what tent you’re in. No sense all of us getting taken. Now get out there with your damn hands up.”
Grumbling, then cursing in German, and then, “Fine, okay. I’m coming. But you don’t shoot, yes?”
“I don’t shoot, yes,” confirmed Tate.
Movement in the corner of Carson’s eye drew attention. He swung the Spencer to the far-right side of the clearing, where a man emerged from between two boulders. The man was tall and stooped and stork thin, with buckteeth and a battered hat pushed back on his head. He was pulling up his pants as he walked, and Carson figure the man had been off doing his business.
Stork Man suddenly understood what was going on and ducked back against one of the boulders, eyes going wide as he hurriedly buckled his belt. Carson assessed the situation. Tate faced the tents and couldn’t see the newcomer unless he happened to turn his head. Carson could shout a warning, but that would give away his position.
The Bavarian emerged from his tent. Hans Mueller was a beefy man, with a glistening bald head, clean-shaven pink cheeks. He wore a big Colt Dragoon on his left hip. He raised his hands and looked nervous. “No shooting, remember!”
“Unbuckle that belt and let it drop,” Tate told him.
The Bavarian hesitated.
Carson took aim at Stork Man. He didn’t want to shoot if he didn’t have to. Tate had told the truth when he said they were only interested in Mueller. Just walk away, friend. Better for all concerned.
Hans moved his hands slowly toward his gunbelt.
Stork Man drew his six-shooter.
Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t—
Stork Man took aim.
The Spencer bucked in Carson’s hands, and Stork Man spun away, blood trailing from a hole above his left temple, six-gun flying and clattering along the rocky ground.
Tate’s head came around to see what was happening, and that was when the Bavarian drew.
But Tate was fast and fanned his Colt three times. The blasts made a neat triangle of wet red dots across Mueller’s chest. The beefy man stumbled back into his tent and fell over, smashing it flat.
A shotgun blast shook the world, and Tate dove behind his boulder. It had come from Ralph Meriwether’s tent, and another blast immediately followed, buckshot scorching Tate’s boulder.
Carson emptied the Spencer into the tent, levering one cartridge in after another.
Silence. Smoke hung in the air.
“You okay?” Carson called.
“Unscathed,” Tate said. “What are you doing?”
“Reloading the Spencer. Want to take a look?”
“Do you think you got him?”
“You alive in there, Meriweather?” Tate called. “My partner’s going to open up again in ten seconds if you don’t say something. We’ve got ammunition to spare.”
Ten seconds went by and they heard nothing from Meriweather.
“You don’t really want me to shoot up that tent again, do you?”
“Never mind,” Tate said. “Cover me. I’ll take a look.”
Meriweather had a hole in his head and a very surprised look on his face.
They draped the bodies over the dead men’s horses.
“You never know,” Tate said. “There might be paper on the others. Anyway, it’s bad form to leave corpses lying about. We’ll let the law sort out the details. We’ll get something for the guns and horses anyway.”
A noncommittal grunt from Carson.
“Now don’t do that,” Tate said.
“You’re in one of your moods,” Tate said. “You always get sullen when there’s shooting. It was necessary, you know. That gentleman coming back from relieving himself would have had me if you hadn’t nailed him first.”
“Necessary doesn’t mean I like it.”
“Well, I’m not especially fond of bloodshed either.” A shrug from Tate. “It’s simply part of the business.”
“Well, that’s why it’s not the business for me,” Carson said for maybe the hundredth time. “Soon as I get the money I need, that’s it.”
“So you’ve told me.”
They led the horses down a narrow path to where they’d left their own mounts about a thousand feet below. Carson’s was a big black gelding named Jet, and he gave the animal a stroke down the nose before climbing into the saddle. They found the southern trail and rode out of the Payette at an easy pace.
“How much do you need, actually?” Tate asked. “To start your own ranch.”
Carson thought about it. “I don’t really know, to be honest. As much as I can get. Breeding cattle. Lumber for a house, barn, corral, about a hundred other things, I guess. And the land, of course.”
“What land?” Tate asked. “We’ve been from Arkansas to Idaho. You haven’t picked a place.”
Carson grinned. “I haven’t seen all the places.”
“Aha.” Tate wagged a finger. “I don’t think you’re a settle-down-in-one-place sort of man, old sport. I think you have the wanderlust. A desire to see the world.”
“Might be something to that,” Carson admitted. “But I still don’t want to shoot people for a living.”
“Well, like it or not, I’m glad you happen to be good at it,” Tate said. “Saved my bacon more than once. You’ve a keen eye with that Spencer.”
Carson made an indifferent noise in his throat. “It shoots fine, I guess. I preferred my Winchester. Before it got thrown into a river.”
Tate frowned. “Oh, that’s right. She did that, didn’t she?”
The she Tate referred to was a hellacious redhead who’d tried to murder them both at different times. She’d been a bounty hunter like Tate. Now she was a fugitive. Tate had a superstition about saying her name out loud, something about summoning demons.
“Buy a new Winchester,” Tate suggested. “You can afford it.”
“The Spencer shoots fine,” Carson said. “I’m saving my money.”
“Buy some land here in Idaho. It’s pretty country.”
Carson shook his head. “Tell me how pretty you think it is in January.”
“How much money do you really need for this ranch?” Tate asked.
“A dollar and a quarter an acre. Or free, if I homestead,” Carson said. “But that’s five years staying on the land and doing something with it.”
“I can’t think of anywhere I’ve been that I’d want to stay five years. I suppose people do it—settle down with a family and so on. I just can’t see it for myself.”
Carson said nothing but admitted similar thoughts to himself. What If he got to the end of five years and discovered he’d chosen wrong? He only had one life to live and didn’t relish a five-year mistake. A ranch had seemed obvious. Carson knew the work, was good at it, and liked being outdoors. He’d considered other choices. He loved a good saloon but running one would be a nonstop headache. Drunks and men getting too rough with the gals who worked the saloon, shootings over poker games gone bad. Half the trouble Carson had ever gotten into had started in saloons.
A store clerk, a farmer, join the army? Carson had to do something with his life, anything but shoot men and collect money for it.
They left the Payette and angled toward Boise. The road was empty and quiet.
Tate squinted up at the sun, then looked back at Carson. “I don’t suppose we’ll make Boise tonight.”
Carson shook his head. “Nope.”
“What do you think, then?” Tate asked. “Porter Bend?”
Carson nodded. “Yep.”
They made the bend with a little less than an hour’s daylight left. The bend was formed where Porter Creek took a sharp turn left to feed the Payette River. The creek was just big enough to justify a small, wooden bridge, although the water wouldn’t get high again until spring thaw. There was also a crossroads, the road they were on continuing south into Boise. The crossroad went one way to the northeast into the Salmon-Challis, the other way due west. On the far side of the trading post was a small landing for traffic on the Payette.
The trading post itself had been burned to the ground by the Bannock at the start of the war back in June. Carson had been told it had once been a thriving establishment, a long, low dry goods store that doubled as a hash house, a corral of fresh horses for the stagecoach, and a blacksmith’s shop.
Carson had just finish building a fire and putting on a pot of coffee when he heard voices and horses. He looked up and saw the column approach in two lines. Twenty bluecoats, dusty from the road. They came from the western road and then crossed the bridge. A line of five unmounted Indians brought up the rear, tethered to a long rope, hands tied in front of them. Two more cavalrymen rode a buckboard behind the Indians. It pulled a huge, multibarreled gun mounted like a cannon. Carson had never seen a Gatling gun, but from what he’d heard, he couldn’t be looking at anything else.
The two men at the head of the column broke off and trotted toward Carson.
“Hello, the campfire,” called the officer as he rode forward.
Carson waved. “Welcome.”
The two riders reined in their horses as they entered the circle of campfire light. They dismounted, and Carson looked them over. The first cavalryman was short but broad, black muttonchops down the sides of a beefy face, three sergeant stripes on one sleeve. The man with the major’s insignia on his shoulder was only a little taller, trim and neat, a brown mustache and and dark eyes, a bland brown but keen and searching.
The major glanced to once side, where the horses were tethered to a picket line. Close by were three lumps under blankets, clearly dead bodies. “Don’t suppose I’d be doing my job if I didn’t ask about them.”
Tate stood and doffed his hat. “Colby Tate, Major. Licensed in Texas to hunt bounties. The unfortunate souls under the blankets are Hans Mueller and his so-called friends. There’s paper on him in Boise. The local sheriff put us onto this job, and I’m sure you can check with him if you’re passing through.”
“You have anything to show me that can verify any of this?” the major asked.
Tate produced a packet of papers wrapped in leather and handed them over to the major, who shuffled through them, giving each page a cursory look. He nodded and handed them back. “Seems in order.” He turned to Carson. “What about you?”
Carson touched the brim of his hat. “Carson Stone, sir. Don’t have no papers. I just sort of help him.”
“Okay, then.” The major stuck his nose in the air and sniffed pointedly. “Coffee smells good.”
Carson took the hint. “If you can come up with a cup, there’s plenty to share.”
The major went into a saddlebag and came out with a cup. “Sergeant, get the men set up, will you?”
“Yessir.” The sergeant snapped off a salute, then went away to bark an order at the troopers.
The major handed the empty cup to Carson, and Carson handed it back full.
“Name’s Grady. George Grady,” the major told them. “Obliged for the hospitality.”
Carson watched the other troopers ride past as the three men exchanged bland pleasantries. The Indians were herded together, and two troopers were set to watch over them, pacing idly, Springfield carbines resting lazily on their shoulders.
“Where you taking those Bannock?” Carson asked.
“Fort Hall,” Grady said. “Then I’m shed of ’em. Bunch of strays running all over the place, causing minor trouble since the surrender. One of my lieutenants has the other platoon chasing a few halfway to the Snake River. I told him good luck with it. Been too long since I slept in a real bed, so I’m heading back.”
“You don’t worry about splitting your forces?” Tate asked. “I mean, ever since the Little Bighorn . . .”
Grady chuckled. “No fight left in this particular group of Indian. Bessie made sure of that.” He nodded toward the Gatling gun, the barrels glinting metallic in the firelight. “She tore ’em up pretty bad at Fox Valley. We drag her around where everyone can see. It’s a good reminder.”
They traded news they’d heard from around the region. The troopers strung a picket line and tethered their horses. The Bannock prisoners were each given a plate of cold beans. Carson refilled the tin cups with fresh coffee.
“Thanks again.” Grady sipped coffee. “A shame the damn redskins burned the trading post. Coffee’s good, but a shot of whisky wouldn’t hurt it none.”
“A good spot for a trading post. I bet the owner did good business,” Carson said. “Surprised he hasn’t started rebuilding yet.”
“Don’t think he’s going to,” Grady said. “I heard he sold the land and headed west. Don’t know who bought it or why. Maybe a new trading post.”
“You’d think the new owner would get building, then,” Carson suggested. “Before the snows come.”
“You’d think,” Grady agreed.
Carson cast a glance just as one of the Indians turned his face toward the firelight, and Carson felt a jolt of recognition. It was the Bannock who’d sold them the location to Mueller’s camp. The Indian had seemed tired and defeated at the time, and Carson was surprised to see him among the other prisoners.
Grady finished his coffee and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. “Thanks again for the coffee. Guess I’d better check on the men. You two travel safe in the morning.”
Carson nudged Tate after the major left. “See those Indians?”
“What about them?” Tate said without looking up.
“I think that’s Laughing Otter,” Carson said.
“Who?” Tate looked now, the name ringing a bell.
“The Bannock who helped us find Mueller.”
Tate grunted, considering. “Seems the old boy has landed himself in a bit of hot soup. I wonder what he did.”
“I wonder, too,” Carson said. “He told us he was headed deep into the mountains to get away from all the trouble.”
“Trouble found him anyway.”
“I’m going to talk to him,” Carson said.
“What good will that do?”
“None at all, I’m guessing, but I’m curious.”
Carson walked toward the circle of Indians sitting on the ground.
Halfway there, one of the troopers stepped in front of him. “Help you with something?”
“I know that Bannock,” Carson told the trooper. “His name is Laughing Otter.”
Carson shrugged. “And nothing, I guess. Just wanted to talk to him a minute.”
“Just curious how he ended up here. Don’t worry, you’ll still have your Indian when I’m done.”
The trooper looked back at the Bannock, then at Carson again. “I guess it don’t matter. Wait here.”
The trooper separated Laughing Otter from the other Bannock and brought him to Carson. The trooper stepped away a few feet to give the two men a modicum of privacy.
“Friend Carson, I am surprised to see you.” Laughing Otter’s English was good, and again Carson wondered where he’d learned it.
Carson wouldn’t go as far as to call Laughing Otter a friend, but he’d done business with the Indian and certainly wished him no harm. The Bannock seemed affable enough, and the dollar Carson had paid him to find Hans Mueller’s hidden camp had been well spent.
“I think I’m more surprised to see you here,” Carson told Laughing Otter. “Last I saw, you were headed north fast. How’d you get rounded up by these bluecoats?”
“Two days after I left you, I met with a number of my tribe who were also fleeing,” Laughing Otter explained. “They convinced me to turn west for Oregon, where the bluecoats still hunt the Bannock, but not as much. They caught us in the open with many others of my people. Many were shot trying to run. Those here are all who survived.”
Carson sighed. “Hard stuff.”
“There are winners in war, and there are losers.” Laughing Otter shrugged. “This time the Bannock are the losers, and with losing there are consequences.”
Carson cast about, not sure what to say to that. His eyes landed on the blackened timber of the burned trading post. “Was that you?”
“Not me, but the Bannock, yes.”
“I guess that’s just part of war.”
Laughing Otter seemed about to say something but hesitated.
Carson’s eyes narrowed. “Something on your mind, Laughing Otter?”
“Burning the trading post was part of war, yes,” the Indian said. “But also not.”
“If you want me to understand, you’ll have to do better than that,” Carson said.
“A man approached a war party of the Bannock to strike a bargain. A white man. The war party was led by a brave named Eyes of Fire,” Laughing Otter explained. “This white man wanted the trading post burned. He paid Eyes of Fire and his braves many cases of whisky for the deed. It was Eyes of Fire’s task to make war on the white man anyway, so why not also get the whisky? So the trading post was burned, and the war was blamed.”
Carson wasn’t sure what to make of that.
“Okay, conversation’s over, mister,” the trooper said. “We got an early start in the morning, and these Indians need to bed down.”
“Farewell, friend Carson,” the Bannock said.
“Good luck, Laughing Otter.” Carson offered his hand, and they shook.
When Carson went back to his own campfire, he found Tate already resting his head on his saddle, hat pulled down over his eyes.
“Satisfy your curiosity?” Tate asked.
Carson leaned back on his own saddle. “I think I’ve got more questions now than when I started.”
He closed his eyes, and the fire died, and darkness and silence consumed the place that had once been a thriving trading post. Carson let slumber take him, and he snored lightly, a deep, restful sleep without dreams.
Carson blinked and tried to sit up. Disorientated. Had it been hours or minutes?
A gunshot brought him the rest of the way awake. He sprang to his feet, the Spencer rifle in his hands an eyeblink later. Tate was already standing, a Peacemaker filling each hand.
“What is it?” Carson asked.
“Haven’t the foggiest,” Tate replied. “Some commotion down by the river.”
They headed for the river, . . .
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