WELCOME TO JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WATCH YOUR BACK.
From the bestselling chroniclers of the American West comes a brand new series of gun-blazing adventures that could only happen in Texas. Meet Cullen McCabe, a Lone Star sheriff who learned—the hard way—that there are two sure things in life . . .
DEATH & TEXAS
The great state of Texas is a land of opportunity. For outlaws. And horse thieves. And cattle rustlers. Not to mention bank robbers, train robbers, and anything-that-ain’t-nailed-down robbers. The state’s governor, Richard B. Hubbard, is at the end of his rope. He wants to clean up Texas once and for all—and he’s desperate enough to try something crazy: hire a man who can do what the Texas Rangers can’t. A man not tied down by a wife or children. Or rules. Who’s not afraid to go outside the law. Who will protect the good people of Texas at any cost—and put the blast on anyone who gets in his way. . . .
He needs a man like Cullen McCabe, a small town sheriff.
First in the explosive Death & Texas series!
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: February 22, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 336
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Death & Texas
William W. Johnstone
For the better portion of the last six months, Cullen had tracked the gang of outlaws with no purpose in life beyond destroying the men who had taken away his reason for living. In relentless pursuit of the five, he had tracked them down, one by one, to exact the vengeance that had driven him on to this final place of reckoning. The man inside the cabin was Troy Camp. His was the only name of the five that Cullen knew. As sheriff of the small town of Sundown, Cullen had arrested him for drunken behavior once, but surely this was not motive enough to slaughter Mary Kate and the children. This was an act of purely malicious men, bent on satisfying their evil pleasures.
Cullen felt the muscles in his forearms tightening as he clenched the 73 Winchester in his hands and stared at the door of the cabin. There was still no evidence of anyone stirring inside. The thought occurred to him that maybe he had been tricked, and Camp had sneaked out the back window during the early-morning hours. That possibility was enough to cause him to forsake earlier thoughts of patience. He could wait no longer. Rising from his position by the tree, he pulled a coil of rope up on his shoulder, then walked down the bank of the creek, his rifle ready to fire. When he reached the water, he walked through it, straight toward the cabin door. When he reached it, he raised his foot, and with one powerful thrust, he kicked the door open.
Shocked from a drunken sleep, Troy Camp bolted up from his bedroll, his pistol in hand, firing wildly and as quickly as he could manage. His shots ripped into the log walls around the door until a shot from Cullen’s rifle cut him down. Camp grabbed his stomach and dropped to his knees. “You idiot,” he cursed as Cullen walked over and kicked Camp’s .44 out of his reach. “What are you waiting for?” he demanded painfully. “I’m gut-shot. Go ahead and finish it.”
“I’m in no hurry,” Cullen said, and took the coil of rope off his shoulder, stepped behind Camp, pulled his arms behind him, and tied his wrists together. Disregarding Camp’s painful protests, he pushed him over on his face, then quickly tied his ankles together.
Not only in pain, but confused as well, Camp realized that the sheriff was not going to shoot him. “Whaddaya gonna do?” Camp whined. “You arrestin’ me? You can’t take me in. I’m bleedin’ bad. I won’t make it back to Sundown. I’m hurtin’ bad.”
“Yeah, Camp, I’m arrestin’ you, for murder, theft, and arson, but don’t worry, you won’t be in pain very much longer. I’m gonna take care of that right now.” He cut the rope after Camp’s feet were tied and began making a noose in one end of it.
Camp realized at once what Cullen had in mind. “Hey, wait a minute, Sheriff, I didn’t take no part in killin’ that woman and her kids. That was all them boys I was ridin’ with. They just started out to have a little fun, and I reckon it kinda got outta hand. I swear.” He tried to wiggle out of reach, but Cullen pulled the noose over his head and tightened it around his neck. Helpless to resist, Camp was pulled up on his feet by his powerful captor, his pleas for mercy falling on ears long deaf to him and his kind.
Oblivious to the moaning from the condemned man, Cullen threw the free end of his rope over the center beam running the length of the small cabin and began to draw Camp up from the floor. The beam was just high enough to lift the struggling victim up about a foot off the floor. Silent and expressionless, Cullen stood and watched until Camp ceased to struggle and quiver. Then he kicked the small stove over on the floor and fed the glowing coals with anything he could find that would burn. When he felt assured that it was enough to catch the whole cabin on fire, he turned and left. He had not told Troy Camp that the house he and his friends had burned was his house and the family he murdered was his family. He didn’t want to give the man that satisfaction to take to hell with him.
Suddenly, he was awake!
Looking all around him in the darkness of the unfinished cabin, it took a moment for him to realize that he had once again relived in a dream the execution of Troy Camp. It seemed that his mind would forever hold every detail of that fatal encounter with the last member of the murderous pack of animals that had brought an end to all happiness in his life. He released a weary sigh and lay back on his bedroll, reluctant to try to go back to sleep, fearing that he might be drawn back to that encounter yet again. As he lay there, he wondered if he should have remained the sheriff in Sundown. Jason Barrett, the mayor, had almost begged him to stay, but Cullen could not bear the thought of living there with his family gone. He stayed only until Tom Hawkins agreed to take the job. Then Cullen left to find someplace where he wouldn’t see the people he knew in Sundown, to be constantly reminded of what he had lost. For want of anything better, he settled on this lonely bank of the Brazos, downstream from the little town of Two Forks, where no one knew him. He was aware of the fact that he would have to find some means of surviving, but at the moment, he didn’t care what happened to him. He also knew that he would eventually decide to do whatever it took to go on.
“Jimmy!” Leon Armstrong, telegraph operator in Two Forks, Texas, called to his son. “Yonder he goes!” When Jimmy hurried into the telegraph office, his father pointed to a lone rider on a bay horse, leading a sorrel packhorse. He handed a telegram to the boy. “Looks like he’s fixin’ to pull up at Thornton’s. Hurry on over there and give him that wire. He don’t come into town that often, and it’s been settin’ here since Monday.” Leon was especially anxious to see the telegram delivered, because he was sure it had to be important. The telegram even said it was important. It read:
And it was sent by Michael O’Brien, assistant to the governor. Leon couldn’t recall anyone else in Two Forks ever receiving a telegram from the governor’s office. He remained standing in the doorway, watching Jimmy, as the boy ran across the muddy main street, hopping over the deep wagon ruts left by the recent rainy weather.
When the message had arrived, Leon was not really sure who Cullen McCabe was. He had never received any telegrams addressed to him before. He would not know now, had he not asked Ronald Thornton if he knew who the somber-looking stranger was. Thornton’s general store was the only place he had seen McCabe patronize, and Thornton wasn’t able to tell him much about the man beyond his name. He said he seemed to be a serious individual, who never smiled and never dallied in the store, called off his needs, paid for them, then promptly left. Thornton said he was a big man, said you didn’t realize how tall he was until you walked up and stood next to him. Ronald speculated that he was a loner, because of the basic supplies he bought. Nothing ever indicated he was calling off a list of things necessary to prepare a meal that a woman might create. “He sure as hell don’t waste words,” Thornton had said. “When I asked him if he had a place near town, he just said, ‘Down the river a piece.’ He wasn’t impolite, though. When Clara came in from the back room, he didn’t say nothin’. But when he left, he tipped his hat to her on his way out the door.”
Thinking back on that conversation, Leon grinned as he thought, Wait till Thornton finds out this fellow got a request to come talk to the governor. He watched then as the stranger got down from his horse, and Jimmy ran up to hand him the telegram. Damn, he is pretty tall, Leon couldn’t help thinking when he saw Jimmy standing next to him. It appeared to Leon that this Cullen McCabe hesitated to take the wire at first before finally accepting it. Then, when Jimmy turned to leave, McCabe called him back, reached in his pocket, and came out with a coin for the boy. The somber man paused on Thornton’s front step for a couple of minutes to read the short message again before folding it and putting it in a vest pocket.
“He gave me a nickel, Papa,” Jimmy exclaimed when he ran back into the office. “Ain’t nobody else ever done that.”
“What’d he say when you gave him the wire?” Leon asked.
“He didn’t say much of anything,” Jimmy replied. “At first, he didn’t think it was for him, till I showed him his name on it.”
I reckon I’ll have to wait till I talk to Thornton, Leon thought.
Across the street at Thornton’s General Merchandise, the proprietor glanced up when Cullen walked in the door. “Afternoon,” Thornton greeted him. “Glad to see you came back to see us.”
“Afternoon,” Cullen returned. “I need a few things.” He took another look at the telegram Jimmy Armstrong had delivered. “Maybe more than I thought,” he added. He was still deciding whether or not to ignore the wire. Even though it was a polite summons and not an order to turn himself in, his first thought was that he had nothing to discuss with anybody in the state capital. Two days after he had killed Troy Camp, he rode down to the Texas Ranger station in San Antonio to report what he had done and where all the bodies could be found. He was told that there were wanted notices out on all five of the men he had tracked down and killed. He spent two more days in San Antonio while his actions were being discussed. After those meetings, a decision was reached, and he had been advised that the Texas Rangers would not seek charges against him. This, in spite of the fact that he, as sheriff of the town of Sundown, had not been authorized to try and execute the five outlaws without benefit of a jury. He had tracked down and hung every one of them, but the commander of the Rangers said they would have hung all five of them, anyway. And McCabe was acting in his capacity as sheriff, so it wasn’t as if an ordinary citizen had done it. In the end, they decided that he had done a job that the Rangers would have had to do, and they were stretched too thin as it was. It was not officially noted, but the lenient decision was greatly influenced by the fact that it was Cullen’s family that had been so savagely destroyed. When they asked where they might contact him in the event any more information was needed, he told them Two Forks, since he had decided never to return to Sundown.
“You got a list or somethin’?” Thornton asked when Cullen seemed to have his mind somewhere else.
“No,” Cullen replied. “No list.” Then he called off some things he needed: bacon, salt, coffee, flour, primarily. He considered sugar for a moment when Thornton suggested it, then declined. As in the case of his every visit to the store, the transaction was simple and quick, with no time spent on small talk. Within a few minutes’ time, he took his purchases and was gone, leaving Thornton with a growing curiosity about the man.
Still watching from across the street, Leon Armstrong remained in his doorway until McCabe wheeled the big bay away from the hitching rail and rode back the way he had come. As soon as McCabe passed by the River House saloon at the end of the street and continued on out of town, Leon called to his son, “I’ll be back in about five minutes—just be across the street, if anybody needs me.” Without waiting for a reply from Jimmy, he hurried across the street to Thornton’s store.
Thornton looked up when Leon came in the door. “I figured it wouldn’t be long before you showed up,” he said, “but I don’t know any more about him than what I told you before. I don’t reckon he said more’n five or six words the whole time he was in the store.”
Thornton’s wife, Clara, walked in to join them. “You two are working up a lot of steam about that fellow,” she said. “If you ask me, I think he’s an outlaw, hiding out somewhere down the river.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Leon was quick to challenge. “I thought you might be interested to know he got a telegram from the governor’s office, tellin’ him the governor wanted to have a meetin’ with him—telegram said it was important.” He looked at Clara and grinned. “So I don’t reckon he’s an outlaw. If he is, they’ve got a new polite way of arrestin’ folks.” Leon was right—Ronald and Clara found that news worth further speculation.
As for the mystery man they puzzled over, Cullen McCabe had nothing on his mind beyond taking care of his horses and completing a small log cabin he had been working on before winter set in over the Texas plains. He had built a three-sided shed for Jake and his packhorse before starting the cabin, so his horses had shelter. Taking care of them was his major concern now that his family was gone. And with the men who had destroyed his family now having been dealt with, there was no longer any purpose to his life. So he had no thoughts on what he would do now that vengeance was done. He had found it impossible to think beyond each day that passed. That was before he received the telegram. As he rode back down the river on this late afternoon, he thought about the summons again. What could the governor possibly want to talk to him about? Maybe there was some problem with the Rangers over their decision not to prosecute him for the five hangings. Although he consciously thought he didn’t give a damn what the governor wanted, he could not deny a curiosity to at least know why the governor would think it important enough to send him a wire. These were the thoughts that captured his mind as he guided Jake down through the stand of oaks that shielded his primitive homestead on the riverbank.
He paused for a few moments to look at his cabin and shed. It was a far cry from the solid home he had built for Mary Kate and their three children, that was now no more than a pile of burnt timbers and ashes. It was a place he could not bring himself to return to, so he had carried the bodies of his loved ones over eight miles away from there, until finding a little spot on a hillside that seemed appropriate. It had been since the first of spring that his world had been destroyed, but he came to realize that the burned images of what had been left of his wife and children would forever be in his conscious mind. He thought again of the telegram in his vest pocket. The fact that it made no sense that the governor of Texas sent for him was enough to spur his curiosity to find out why. Still puzzling over the unlikely circumstance that the governor even knew who he was, he decided to ignore the wire, figuring it had to have been a mistake. As soon as he made that decision, he immediately changed his mind, his curiosity having gotten the best of him. What the hell—he shrugged—there ain’t nothing keeping me here.
“What is it, Ben?” Michael O’Brien looked up from his desk when his secretary, Benjamin Thacker, tapped on his open door.
“There’s a man out here who says the governor sent for him,” Thacker replied.
“What about?” O’Brien asked.
“I asked him that,” Thacker answered, “but he said he didn’t know, just that the governor wanted to see him.”
“Did you get his name?”
“He didn’t give it,” Thacker said. “I’ll ask him.” He stepped back to the outer office, and in a few moments, stuck his head back in the door. “His name’s Cullen McCabe. He said you sent him a telegram.”
“Oh hell, yes!” O’Brien immediately exclaimed. “Send him on in here.” He got up from his chair to greet him. It had been quite some time since he had sent the telegram, and he had all but given up on ever hearing from McCabe. Having formed an image of a rugged small-town sheriff who had hunted down and killed five ruthless outlaws, O’Brien was still surprised by the formidable man filling his doorway. Tall and rugged, with shoulders that almost touched each of the doorjambs, he caused O’Brien to think of a cougar on the hunt. At the same time, he was aware of a look of quiet authority. “Cullen McCabe?” O’Brien asked to be sure.
“That’s right,” Cullen answered. He remained standing in the doorway.
“Well, come on in, man,” O’Brien said, walking around his desk to meet him and extending his hand. “I sent you that wire about a week ago, maybe longer. I’m glad to see you decided to come in.”
“I didn’t get it till yesterday,” Cullen stated. “I came in to see what you wanted.”
“Well, like I said in the telegram,” O’Brien said, “the governor wants to talk to you, but first, let’s you and I talk a little bit.” He wanted to get to know McCabe a little better before he chanced wasting Governor Hubbard’s time on a bad idea. The idea was all O’Brien’s, which made it more important to him to get a bigger picture of the fabric the man was made of before he paraded him before the governor. “Have a seat.” He nodded toward a chair across the desk from his and thought about commenting on the rifle and sidearm Cullen wore. It struck him that they were inappropriate in the state offices, but he decided not to say so. Instead, he asked Cullen to tell him about the pursuit and ultimate capture of all five of the men responsible for his family’s demise.
“There ain’t much to tell,” Cullen replied. “I tracked ’em till I caught up with ’em, then I hung ’em. I’ve already squared it with the Rangers. Is this what this meeting is about, the fact that they didn’t get to stand in front of a judge?”
“No, no,” O’Brien was quick to assure him, “but it does have a bearing on why you were contacted. I take it you’re no longer the sheriff in Sundown. Is that right?”
“That’s a fact. I’m done with Sundown.”
O’Brien continued, “What are you doing now?”
Cullen hesitated before answering, “Not much of anything—buildin’ a cabin down below Two Forks—takin’ one day at a time, I reckon.”
“Do you have family somewhere?”
“Not anymore,” Cullen answered. The only family he knew had been taken from him in one horrible act of fate. He refrained from going into detail about the fact that he had been orphaned when a young boy.
O’Brien began to believe McCabe could not be more qualified for the position he had in mind. “It sounds to me like you don’t really have any plans for what you’re going to do now.” When Cullen shrugged indifferently, thinking that was what he had just said, O’Brien continued, “You ever think about maybe doing something positive with your life, something that might help the people of Texas?”
“Like what?” Cullen asked, already thinking this a pointless meeting he had been summoned to.
“I’ll tell you what,” O’Brien replied. “Why don’t we go in and talk to the governor about that?” When Cullen’s silent reaction seemed to indicate he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, O’Brien said, “If the governor thinks the same as I do, then he might offer you a job. Just bear with me, all right?”
“A job? What kinda job?” Cullen couldn’t think of a thing he could do to help the state of Texas.
“Let’s let the governor talk to you about that,” O’Brien insisted. “From what you’ve just told me, you’re pretty much adrift on what you’re gonna do. So you might as well listen to a possible job that would do some good, all right?”
Cullen shrugged. “I reckon.” He decided, since he had gone to the trouble to come this far, he would listen to what the governor had in mind.
“Might be best to leave your weapons here,” O’Brien said as he got up from his desk. “They’ll be all right. We’re just going up to the end of the hall to the governor’s office. Sit here a minute while I go see if he’s available right now. He’s been in a meeting all morning, but he should be out of there by now.” He hurried out the door, leaving Cullen to wonder what he had walked into and whether or not it might be best to be gone when O’Brien returned. He hadn’t decided before O’Brien came right back and beckoned him to follow.
“Mr. McCabe.” Governor Hubbard got to his feet and greeted Cullen when he walked into his office. “Michael tells me you might be the man to fill a job we’re considering.” He reached out across his desk to shake Cullen’s hand. “Right now, I’d have to say you sure as hell look capable.”
“Thank you, sir,” Cullen replied respectfully. “Tell you the truth, I didn’t have any idea I was comin’ up here to apply for a job.”
“I know we hit you kind of sudden-like,” Hubbard said, “but I think you should consider the offer. Before we get into that, tell me why you didn’t just shoot those outlaws when you caught up with them, instead of going to the trouble of hanging them.”
“What they did was a hangin’ offense,” Cullen replied. “There wasn’t any doubt, they were guilty, and I didn’t have a courtroom handy, but I wanted them to experience the same fate they woulda got from a judge.”
Hubbard nodded as he considered that, then said, “Michael says, from what he has been able to learn, that there was practically no lawlessness in the town of Sundown while you were the town marshal. Is that right?”
Cullen shrugged. “Sundown’s a peaceful town. Lotta good folks there.”
Hubbard nodded thoughtfully. He was impressed by the lack of boastful bravado on the part of the quiet man. Needing no further speculation, he made his decision on the spot. “I’m sorry to say I’ve got another meeting that I’m already late for, but I’m offering you the job. Michael will tell you all about it and I hope you’ll give it some serious consideration. He’ll be your contact here if you decide to take the job.” He grabbed his coat and was out the door in a moment, down the hall to his meeting.
With Hubbard’s hasty, although official, approval, O’Brien was ready to make the actual job offer. It was not what Cullen would have imagined, but he listened with no small amount of interest. As O’Brien explained, Cullen was to be appointed as a special agent, answering to the governor alone, or O’Brien on the governor’s behalf. He would not be subservient to any law enforcement agency in the state and would be sent on assignments where no other agency was close by. “In the great, wild expanse that is now the state of Texas,” O’Brien went on, “there are more and more settlers moving into territory that used to be controlled by Indians. Small settlements are sprouting up all over the state and there are frankly not enough law agencies to handle all the trouble.” He shook his head thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, there are plenty of outlaws making their way into Texas, as well.”
O’Brien stressed that Cullen was to be, in effect, a troubleshooter, sent to help in any way he could, and authorized to make arrests if he deemed it necessary. O’Brien made it clear that there would be no restrictions on how he handled the assignments as long as he put an end to the trouble he was sent to quell. “Let me make it perfectly clear to you,” O’Brien emphasized, “the governor is not interested in hiring an assassin. You are to use your weapons only as a last resort. Is that clear?” Cullen said he understood, so O’Brien continued, “You would receive a salary of seventy-five dollars a month, plus a certain amount for expenses.” This caught Cullen’s interest right away, for he had no fores. . .
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