The national bestselling western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone give us a completely new western adventure centering on one man's battle to carve out justice one bullet at a time in the untamed territories of Colorado.
JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WHERE BLOOD RUNS COLD
John Holt is a traveling gunslinger. He’s been liberating dirty towns west of the Mississippi of murdering outlaw trash ever since the Civil War ended. No questions asked. Payment on demand.
The only way out of this town is in a pinewood box.
Holt’s latest job is in Devil’s Gulch in Colorado Territory. But wiping out bands of bank robbers is just the beginning. More disorder is brewing, and the skittish mayor has handpicked Holt as the new sheriff. Holt is what the town needs: a mercenary with a badge, a loaded Remington, and a deadeye-aim for trouble.
Devil’s Gulch has the vigilance committee. The man behind it—Joe Mullen, the largest rancher and mine owner in the valley—isn’t keen on an outsider like Holt muscling in on a good thing. Mullen already has his hand in all the crime in Devil’s Gulch. He also triggers it. He likes keeping things wild. With the barbaric Bostrom brood under his command, he’s hoping it stays that way.
Holt quickly finds himself on familiar ground: up against cutthroats on the other side of the only law that counts. Holt’s law. Devil’s Gulch is his town now. And he’s itching to clean it till it sparkles.
Release date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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William W. Johnstone
John Holt looked up from his campfire when his roan started fussing.
He knew the animal could see and hear things in the darkness. It could be an animal attracted to the smell of the bacon he was cooking up as his supper. Maybe a wolf attracted to the scent of his horse.
But Holt knew there was a good chance it was a critter of the two-legged variety drawn by his campfire in the hopes of a meal or something worse.
That was what he hoped, anyway. It was why he had camped out on the outskirts of town rather than riding in and spending the night in the warm bed of a hotel.
Holt drew the Remington .44 from his belt and wrapped his blanket tightly around his shoulders. No reason to show whatever—or whoever—was approaching what he had waiting for them.
His answer came in the form of a shout from the darkness.
“Hello, the camp!” a man’s voice shouted. “We’d like to come in.”
Holt smiled to himself. His trap had worked. “Come ahead, then. Nice and slow with your hands empty.”
“We can do slow,” the man responded, “but we ain’t got slings for our rifles so we won’t come in empty. Can come in holding them by the barrel if that’ll suit you.”
Playing games already. A bad sign. “Sounds like it’ll have to be. Come ahead.”
Holt’s roan fussed and pulled against her rope as the men drew closer and broke into the clearing. Slow and easy as they had promised. He looked back at the mare and told her to be easy.
Holt watched two men as they entered the weak circle of light thrown off by his campfire. He had learned a man could tell you a lot about himself before he even opened his mouth if you took the time to let him.
Their appearance spoke volumes to him now.
He judged the two men to be in their early twenties. They both had a fair complexion and sandy colored hair, so Holt took them for relations, maybe even brothers. One favored their father while the other favored the mother, though it was impossible for Holt to tell which was which. They looked like the better parts of two different people, which confirmed they were blood. Their clothes were damp and dusty and hadn’t seen a good washing in a while, if ever.
Their pants were tattered and torn, but their boots were in reasonably good condition. Neither man had seen a bath or a shave in some time, but the small amount of stubble on their faces showed there was hardly enough reason to put effort into lathering up in the first place.
No, it wasn’t their appearance that put John Holt on edge.
It was their eyes.
Eyes that should have been youthful but could not hide what they had beheld. Eyes that had seen the worst of what men could do to each other when they had no other choice. Eyes that reminded Holt of his own.
The war had done that to him and, by his reckoning, had done the same to these boys too. He could not tell which side they had fought for, not that it mattered. Blood and horror had left its mark on men who had worn either blue or gray.
He watched the young men approach the campfire holding their rifles by the barrels with the stocks forward.
Holt kept his pistol beneath his blanket. He bided his time until he knew who they were.
“Evening, mister.” The taller of the two young men smiled. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“Nothing to thank me for yet,” Holt said as he continued to eye his new guests. Their clothes might be ratty, but they had taken good care of their rifles. He judged the pistols holstered on their hips to be in good condition too.
His mare fussed again, and Holt told her to be quiet.
“Your animal’s a might touchy, mister,” the other one said. “If you don’t mind my saying.”
“I don’t mind, and neither does she.” Holt tried a smile. “She’s never taken kindly to strangers. Guess we have that in common.”
The taller of the two nodded down at the coffeepot he had set next to the fire and the pan of bacon beginning to sizzle. “We’d sure appreciate a cup of coffee if you can spare it, mister. We’d be indebted to you.”
Holt said, “I’ve only got the one cup to spare, unless you boys brought your own. There’s four of you, aren’t there?”
The shorter of the two froze while the taller used his smile as his shield. “Four? Why there’s just two of us, mister, standing here as plain as day. Are you seeing double?”
“I’m seeing just fine.” Holt nodded back toward the mare still pulling against her line. “Not as good as her, of course, especially at night. She hears better than me no matter the time of day, so I know enough to pay attention when she fusses, which she’s doing now. Plain as day, as you said. That tells me you boys have a friend out there somewhere in the darkness trying to flank me at this very moment.”
The shorter of the two swallowed.
The taller of the two kept smiling. “Mister, you’ve got a mighty distrustful nature.”
“And you boys have got a choice,” Holt said. “Either call him in here—and tell him to be nice and slow about it—or there’s going to be a misunderstanding.”
The taller man was not smiling any longer. “Come on out, Cleat. He’s safe. Come to us, not behind him.”
“Smart boy.” Holt told the taller man. “That fourth fella can keep tending the horses. I want to keep this a small affair for now.”
The shorter of the brothers stammered, “H-h-how’d you know we had horses?”
Holt decided there was no harm in telling him. “Your boots don’t look like you’ve been walking all day and you’re not carrying any gear for outdoor living. That tells me you’ve been riding and, since you didn’t bring them with you, nor your saddles neither, I’d say you’ve got someone watching them.”
He did not tell them how he really knew there were four of them. That could come later.
Cleat entered through the darkness on his right side. His rifle in hand but aimed down at the ground. Holt did not have to look at him to know exactly where he was.
“Could’ve hobbled them,” the taller man said. “Or tied them to a tree.”
“If you had, that fourth man would be with you, but he’s not.” Holt’s eyes moved slowly from the shorter brother, then to the taller one, and finally to Cleat. He resembled the two brothers, but the similarities were distant. If he was blood, he was a cousin. He was also a follower. The taller of the three was clearly the leader.
“Which has me wondering,” Holt went on, “why you’d leave him out there all alone instead of bringing the horses with you?”
His eyes moved back to the taller man. If trouble started, it would start with him. “So how about it, boy? What’re you hiding on those horses of yours?”
The tall man’s smile was gone now. The flickering firelight revealed the true nature of the youngster before him. “You ask a lot of questions, mister.”
“My fire,” Holt said. “My grub. My privilege.” His eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t be hiding anything that might be draped across your saddles, would you, boy? Something you wouldn’t like me seeing?”
The shorter brother took a step back. He might have run away if his brother had not been there. But Holt knew that if it had not been for his brother, the shorter man would not have been there at all. And neither would Cleat.
Holt forced the issue while the taller man glared at him from across the fire. “If I were to walk back there and find those horses, I wouldn’t find any money bags from the First National Bank in Devil’s Gulch, would I, boy?”
“You wouldn’t make it that far,” the taller man told him. “And I ain’t nobody’s boy.”
It was Holt’s turn to smile. “Then I guess that would make you three big rats, now wouldn’t it.”
As the taller man dropped his rifle and went for the pistol on his hip, Holt raised his Remington and shot him in the chest.
Cleat was bringing up his rifle when Holt’s second shot punched through his belly. The rifle went off and a bullet struck the fire as Cleat doubled over and dropped the rifle to the ground.
Holt was already on his feet, his blanket shucked from his shoulders, his pistol aimed at the shorter brother who was still making up his mind about what to do next.
“Careful, son,” Holt cautioned. “You don’t have to die tonight. Just drop the rifle and throw up your hands.”
Holt did not know if the younger man had heard him. He was looking down at the bodies of the two Holt had just killed. Thin streams of vapor rose from their wounds in the cold night air. He had seen such sights before—of that, Holt was certain—but not these men. They had already lived through so much. They had escaped death’s grip for four blood-soaked years, yet there they were, lying dead on the cold ground around the campfire of a stranger.
It did not seem possible, but there they were.
And here he was. The only one left to do something about it.
Holt knew the look that appeared on his face all too well. The look of resignation.
“Don’t do it, boy,” Holt warned. “Don’t make me kill you.”
The shorter man looked at him. The fire casting ugly shadows on his face, making him look older than a man so young had any right to be.
“You in the war, mister?”
Holt nodded. “So were you, I take it.”
“Manassas Junction,” he said. “Both times.”
Holt was not surprised. “So was I.”
The young survivor’s expression did not change. He was committed. He was just working himself up to it. “Which side?”
“Does it matter?”
The man took a deep breath. “No. I guess it don’t.”
He tossed the rifle at Holt, who fired as soon as he saw his shoulder flinch. The rifle tilted into the fire. The man hit the ground with a bullet through his head.
He fell to the ground. His pistol still in his hand.
Holt kicked the rifle free from the flames and walked toward Cleat, who was clutching his belly with one hand while he pawed for his rifle with the other. Holt grabbed the rifle and tossed it on the far side of the fire.
Cleat looked up at him. Defeated. “You at Manassas too?”
“My side called it Bull Run.”
“I’m surprised.” The dying man’s eyes narrowed. “You got a bit of Old Virginia in your voice.”
“You got good ears, son.” He aimed the Remington down at him. “That belly wound is mighty bad. I’ll end it if you want.”
Cleat tried to keep his head from shaking as he nodded. His voice quivered as he said, “Looks like we picked the wrong campfire.”
Holt thumbed back the hammer. “Looks like.”
Then, he granted Cleat his last wish.
Holt did not try to conceal himself as he walked through the overgrowth toward the horses. He had an easy time finding them in the darkness. Whoever the dead men had left behind to watch them was having a tough time keeping them under control. The gunfire and the smell of death had spooked them.
The clouds that had been covering the half-moon for most of the night slowly parted and showed Holt a young man he judged to still be in his teens on foot, grappling with four horses pulling away from him.
They were rearing back, eyes wide, and thinking about kicking out with their forelegs.
He could read First National Bank of Devil’s Gulch stamped on the satchels around their saddle horns.
“You’re covered, son,” Holt said as he stepped out of the overgrowth. “Keep your hands where I can see them, and you might just live through this night.”
But the boy was too preoccupied with the horses to pay him much mind. “If you shoot, you’d be doing me a favor. You can wrestle with these damned things for once.”
Holt kept his pistol on the boy while he held his left hand out to the largest of the four horses. “Easy, boy, easy. It’s all over now.”
The animal reluctantly stopped fussing and its nostrils flared to smell the air. It backed away from Holt’s hand as he gently laid it upon its muzzle. “There you go. See that? Nothing to be afraid of. That’s a good boy.”
The horse blew air and scrapped at the ground but calmed under Holt’s touch. The other three did the same.
The boy gave the reins some slack as the fight slowly went out of the mounts. “You know how to handle horses, mister.”
“Pistols too.” Holt pulled the boy’s Colt from his holster and tucked it into this belt. “You’d do well to remember that while you bring this bunch over toward the fire.”
The boy did not turn to face him as he got the other animals under control. “You kill them?”
“Had no choice.”
The boy turned on him and found himself looking down the barrel of the Remington.
“You think that scares me?” Tears streamed down the boy’s face, but his voice was steady. “You’ve just killed all the kin I’ve got in this world, mister. What makes you think I’ve got anything to live for?”
Holt admired the boy’s courage, but not enough to let him speak to him that way. He brought the barrel across his nose, breaking it easily.
The boy dropped to the ground, both hands to his bleeding nose.
The horses’ reins were free, but they did not move.
“Keep a civil tongue and I won’t do that again,” Holt said. “Next time, I’ll break your jaw. Now get up and move these horses to the fire like I told you.”
He made no effort to help the boy get to his feet. The horses didn’t shy away from the smell of blood and made no effort to fight the young man as he led them through the overgrowth.
Holt held the Remington on the boy as he picketed the horses alongside Holt’s gelding. The five mounts quickly forgot about the humans and began munching the grass at their hooves.
The prisoner set the bank satchels on the ground where Holt told him and their saddles too.
His task done; the boy looked down at the three dead men around the campfire. “After all they’ve been through, they get killed by an old man in Colorado.”
Holt grinned. He was not quite thirty yet, but imagined he looked about ready for the rocking chair to a young man of such tender years. “If it takes the sting out of it any, they died as well as could be expected under the circumstances.”
The boy looked up at him. “From where I’m standing, looks like you kill pretty well too.”
Holt did admire the boy’s spirit. “Turn around, get on your knees and put your hands behind you. I’m gonna have to tie you up for the night.”
The boy did as he was told, and Holt grabbed the rope from his saddle next to the campfire. He holstered his Remington and bound the boy’s hands and feet, giving him enough slack to stretch out his legs if he decided to try to sleep. Holt was nothing if not a considerate jailer.
He dragged over one of the saddles and pulled the boy over to it. “You can use that as a pillow if you want.”
“And what about my damned nose?”
Holt kicked some dirt in the boy’s face, which made him cough. “Remember what I told you about a civil tongue. Any more swearing, and I won’t be happy. Get some sleep. We’re heading back to Devil’s Gulch at first light. You’ll need all the rest you can get for the ride ahead.”
“After you bury the money, I reckon.”
“Money’s coming with us,” Holt said as he got to the ground and found his blanket. “We’ll be returning it to its rightful owners. I’ll see to it your kin get a proper Christian burial, for all the good it’ll do them.”
He could feel the boy looking at him in the darkness. “You mean you’re just gonna give it back? There’s over five thousand in those bags, mister. Free and clear. Why would you go and do a fool thing like that?”
Holt shrugged down until his head rested against the saddle just right. “Because it’s my job.”
“You a lawman?”
“Not at present,” Holt admitted, “but come this time tomorrow, I will be.”
He could feel the boy’s eyes still on him as he began to think about sleep.
“You sure are a strange one, mister.”
“Light sleeper too. You try anything, and I’ll put you down for your trouble. Now shut your mouth and get some sleep. We’ve got a big day ahead of us.”
Holt closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift off to sleep. The presence of the dead men around him did not bother him. He had become comfortable with death a long time ago.
Holt saw the townspeople of Devil’s Gulch watch him from the boardwalks as he rode past them with four horses in tow. Three of the horses carried dead men slumped across their saddles. The fourth had a sullen young man whose hands were bound behind him.
Holt heard them whisper as they pointed at the money satchels slung across the horses. He knew, human nature being what it was, the attraction of death and money was difficult to resist.
The clock tower of the First National Bank had just struck eight o’clock as Holt climbed down from his horse and wrapped its reins around the hitching rail in front of the town jail.
He pulled the lead rope closer to him and knotted it around the rail before pulling his prisoner down from the saddle. The boy landed on both feet but staggered until Holt held him upright.
“Lucky I didn’t fall out of the saddle along the way,” the boy said as Holt pushed him up on the boardwalk.
“Sure are. I would’ve dragged you if you had.”
Holt grabbed him by the arm and steered him toward the jail, but found the door was locked. He knocked on the door as a small cluster of townspeople gathered on either side of him, careful to keep their distance.
“Afraid you won’t find anyone in there, mister,” an old woman told him. “Haven’t had any formal law around here for a couple of months or more.”
Holt was annoyed. Hadn’t they received his letter? “Any idea where I can find Mayor Chapman or Mr. Mullen?”
One of the men on the other side of the group spoke up. “Too early for them to be at the county hall where they ought to be. Best place to look for them is the Blue Bottle Saloon just down the street. The mayor’s partial to the breakfast they serve.”
“Among other things,” the old woman said to the laughter of all.
But Holt did not laugh. He pointed to the man who had spoken up. “You stay here and keep an eye on the money. If anyone so much as touches those bags, I’ll hold you responsible.”
“I ain’t no lawman, mister,” the man protested. “Besides, I’ve got to—”
Any remaining protest died in his throat under Holt’s glare.
The man looked away. “I’ll look after them. You have my word.”
“Anyone touches them, I’ll have your hide nailed to this door.”
Holt pulled his prisoner along with him as the crowd parted to allow them to pass.
The Blue Bottle Saloon was easy enough to spot. The sign swinging in the morning breeze told him where the place was. The blue-tinged glass of the large window confirmed it. He had never seen a saloon with such thick, oddly colored glass before, but reminded himself that he had never been to this part of the country before.
He opened the saloon door with his free hand and pushed his prisoner in ahead of him. The boy tripped on the threshold and the sawdust on the floor caused him to hit face-first, narrowly missing a spittoon beside the bar.
Holt shut the door behind him and left the young man on the floor as he looked over the customers who looked back at him. Five men sat at a table in the back playing cards. A soiled dove who looked like she wanted to go to bed was rubbing one of the gambler’s shoulders. She seemed more attracted to the pile of chips in front of him than his person.
The rest of the tables were occupied by men who appeared to be eating breakfast and enjoying mugs of piping hot coffee.
Holt called out, “I’m looking for Mayor Chapman or Joseph Mullen. I was told I could find them here.”
One of the men at the table to the left of the door cleared his throat and wiped his chin with a napkin as he got to his feet. Holt pegged him to be on the north side of forty and wore faded clothes that had once been fancy. They struggled to hide his growing belly. “I’m Chapman, sir. And just who might you be?”
Holt looked at him and the other three men around the table. They all resembled the mayor in their own way. Middle-aged and worn the way frontier life could wear down a man if he let it.
“You sent for me, Mr. Mayor,” Holt said. “If you don’t know who I am, then we’ve got nothing to talk about.”
The mayor clasped his hands together. “Mr. Holt, I presume.”
“Your presumption is correct.”
Holt stepped over his prisoner and shook the mayor’s hand. “Delighted to finally meet you, sir. Absolutely delighted.”
Holt looked at the other men at the table, who also began to rise in greeting. A stern-looking man with a full head of brown hair and mustache streaked with gray was next to greet him.
“And I’m Joseph Mullen, head of the Devil’s Gulch Vigilance Committee. It was my letter that reached you, Mr. Holt.”
Holt shook hands with him and found them course and callused. He was a working man, unlike the mayor. “Glad to know you, Mr. Mullen.”
Mullen stepped aside and gestured to a thin, balding man to his left. “This is Anthony Cassidy, the owner of the Blue Bottle Saloon. Tony, this is that Mr. Holt we’ve been talking about.”
Holt noted Cassidy’s fallow skin and pock-marked face. He looked like a flesh peddler. Holt had never held such men in high regard.
“Welcome to the Blue Bottle Saloon, Mr. Holt,” Cassidy said as they shook hands. “Your reputation precedes you.”
Holt released his hand. “And what reputation might that be?”
Cassidy tried a smile as he shrugged. “You reputation for law and order, of course. Everyone’s heard about ‘Gunner Holt,’ even here.”
Holt did not smile. “You don’t get to call me that. Not now. Not ever. Understand?”
The mayor cleared his throat again and tried to break the awkward mood that had settled over them. “And last but not least, this is Dr. Ralph Klassen. The finest doctor this side of the Mississippi. We’re lucky to have him.”
The doctor was leaner and younger than his breakfast companions. He was clean-shaven except for a pair of healthy black mutton chops that complimented the rest of his hair. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Holt.”
Holt returned his strong handshake as the mayor grabbed a chair from another table and slid it over for him. “Have a seat, Mr. Holt. I imagine you’re tired after your long journey. Where is it you came in from again? Chicago, was it?”
“St. Louis,” Holt corrected him as he sat down, but offered no further explanation. In his experience, the less people knew about him, the better all around.
“Splendid,” Mayor Chapman said as he and the others resumed their seats. “Simply splendid. I was going to say that I hope your travels were uneventful, but your friend on the floor seems to indicate just the opposite.”
Dr. Klassen looked around Mullen at the prisoner trying to get his knees under him. “Don’t you think you ought to help him up?”
“Why?” Holt asked. “He was with the bunch who robbed the bank last night.”
Mullen had picked up his fork to resume his breakfast but dropped it. “How do you know that?”
“On account of them bragging about what they were going to do at every cow town between here and Kansas,” Holt told him. “And because he and his friends had satchels with your bank’s name stenciled on the side of them across their saddles.”
Mullen placed his napkin on the table as if it were an afterthought. “You saw thes. . .
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