Deputy U.S. Marshal Jeremiah Halstead keeps the peace in the mining town of Silver Cloud, Montana. But an old enemy has declared war against him.
Ruthless and clever, Ed Zimmerman would have become the leader of one of the west's deadliest and hell-bent outlaw gangs. Zimmerman has offered a generous bounty to every desperado willing to put a bullet through the U.S. Deputy Marshal's heart.
A death sentence won't stop Halstead from enforcing the law. The sheriff of Battle Brook needs a hand dealing with some hell-raising badmen in the surrounding hills, threatening to take over the frontier town. Joined by Deputy Sandborne, Halstead rides hard for Battle Brook only to discover manhunters aware of the price on his head are in town, guns cocked and ready to collect the reward.
And Zimmerman has joined the outlaws in the hills, waiting to catch Halstead in his sights . . .
Release date: July 26, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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Disturbing the Peace
Halstead drew his Colt from his belly holster as he turned around on the crowded street to see who had called his name.
He spotted a fat man in the thoroughfare, beginning to raise a rifle in his direction.
Halstead fired and struck the man in the belly. The impact of the bullet caused the would-be assassin to stagger backward a few steps, but he managed to keep his feet.
He kept his rifle in hand, too.
Halstead’s second shot struck him in the head, which sent him flat on his back.
As more rifle shots filled the air, Halstead dove for cover behind a horse trough. Bullets pelted the dry goods store where he had been standing and punched through the trough, sending a steady trickle of water onto the boardwalk.
The citizens of Helena, who had found themselves in the middle of a gun battle, screamed in panic as they scattered for the nearest cover they could find. All of the noise prevented Halstead from being able to tell where all of the shots were coming from.
“Keep firing, Luke!” a man yelled out above the gunfire and chaos. “We’ve got him now!”
Halstead pegged him. Left side, across the street. In front of the spectacles store.
When the gunmen stopped to reload, Halstead sat up and aimed his pistol at the gunman on the left. His target was in the process of levering in another round into his rifle when Halstead fired twice. One round missed. The second hit him in the chest.
Another rifleman on his right began to cut loose with a primordial yell before he began firing again. That yell had given Halstead time to lay flat behind the cover of the leaking trough. The screaming man’s rifle went empty after three shots. When he heard the rifle hit the compact of the street, Halstead rolled over onto his stomach to see a man charging at him as he pulled his pistol from his holster.
Halstead squeezed off a round, and the bullet hit the charging man in the left hip, causing him to spin as he fell forward.
He landed face first on the ground but had not dropped his pistol.
Halstead quickly got to his feet as he kept the Colt Thunderer aimed down at the fallen man. “Push the gun away from you, mister. You don’t have to die today.”
But instead of pushing the gun away, he tried to raise it.
Halstead’s shot hit him in the top of the head. His body went limp as Halstead watched life leave the stranger.
As he walked over to the man he had just killed, Halstead could hear the stifled whimpers of the citizens who had scrambled for shelter wherever they could find it. He stepped on the dead man’s hand and picked up the gun. A rusty old Walker Colt. Halstead was surprised the gun had not blown up in his hand.
Halstead stood over the dead man, cracked his cylinder, and dumped the dead brass on the corpse. He was in the process of taking rounds from his gun belt and reloading his pistol when a boy from across the thoroughfare shouted, “This one’s still alive, deputy!”
Halstead spun the cylinder and snapped it shut before he looked at a boy of about nine years old pointing down at the second man he had shot in front of the spectacles store.
He kept the Colt at his side as he walked toward the fallen man.
The boy backed away as Halstead drew closer, but he did not run off.
Halstead aimed his pistol at the fallen man as he approached. The gunman was barely still alive. His right shoulder was a ruined, bloody mess and getting worse by the second. The bullet must have hit an artery. He would bleed out in a matter of minutes. Not a lot of time for him, but more than enough time for Halstead to get the truth out of him.
The wounded man was still pawing for his rifle with his left arm when Halstead’s shadow fell across him. He squinted up at the deputy marshal and laid his head flat on the boardwalk. “Go ahead, you bastard. Finish me. I’m done for anyway.”
Halstead had no intention of letting him off that easy. He already knew the answer to his question, but he had to ask it anyway. “Who sent you?”
“Go to hell,” the man spat as he struggled to raise his head. “You’ve already killed the others. Do the same to me.”
Halstead placed his boot on the man’s ruined right shoulder, causing him to scream.
“Last time I ask nicely,” Halstead told him. “Tell me who sent you.”
“Zimmerman, damn you!” the man cried out. “It was Ed Zimmerman.”
Halstead removed his foot. He had been afraid of that. The ten-thousand-dollar bounty the outlaw had put on Halstead was double the bounty the territory had placed on Zimmerman. It had caused the lawman more trouble than he could have imagined.
He heard the citizenry mutter and scatter as they saw another man approaching with a rifle. But there was no reason to worry for the young man had a deputy marshal’s star pinned to his shirt. It was his friend, young Joshua Sandborne.
“You hurt?” Sandborne called out as he aimed his Winchester down at the dying man.
“I’m fine,” Halstead told him. “He’ll be dead in a minute, so no need to go for the doc. Just keep an eye on him and let me know when he goes. Keep an eye on the street in case anyone decides to help him.
Halstead went to check the other two men he had shot. Both men were already facing whatever justice awaited a man in the hereafter. He just wanted to see if he knew them.
He heard some of the women on the boardwalk gasp at the sight of such death and carnage in broad daylight. They made a great show of clutching their pearls and turning their heads, but not their eyes. In his brief time in the territory, Halstead had learned that blood was a popular sport in Montana. Helena might have been the capital of the territory, but it was no different from Dover Station or Silver Cloud or any other frontier town in that regard.
Halstead looked down at the fat man he had shot first. His beard was long and sported a healthy amount of gray and white mixed in with brown. He looked to be about forty years old. What little hair he had left atop his head was also streaked with gray. His skin was weathered and had clearly seen more than its share of the sun. His overalls were faded and stained with sweat and grime that no amount of soap and water could ever wash out.
He looked less like a gunman and more like a farmer, which Halstead expected he was.
Halstead walked over to the last man he had killed. He looked to be younger than the fat man by about a decade or so, but decided he had been a farmer, too.
He had been forced to kill a lot of farmers and shopkeepers and drovers and cowboys and wanderers of every description over the past few weeks. Foolish, desperate men who had taken a gun in hand in the hopes of being able to claim what had been called The Outlaw’s Bounty; the one Edward Zimmerman had placed on Halstead’s head.
Halstead had to admit some admiration for Zimmerman. Not many men had the gall to openly put out a price on the head of a lawman, much less a federal lawman. Most people were appalled by the notion. Public officials and newspapers around the territory denounced it as a hindrance to the territory’s efforts for statehood, which was assured to happen in less than a month or so.
But public condemnation of the bounty had only made word of it spread farther and wider than it otherwise might have. Which was why Jeremiah Halstead had spent every moment of the past several weeks on a knife’s edge. His hand was never far from one of the two Colts he wore on the fancy black leather gun rig he’d had made specifically for himself. One on his right hip and the other in the holster on his belly. The fancy two-gun rig normally drew attention wherever he went. Now he drew attention for a different reason. Men looked at him like they were watching ten thousand dollars walking right by them.
He remained in the thoroughfare as he heard a horse and rider approaching from around the corner. He did not draw either of his guns for he could hear the chatter among the crowd that Sheriff Aaron Mackey and his first deputy, Billy Sunday, were approaching.
He watched Mackey round the corner first, atop the black Arabian he called Adair. The marshal of the Montana Territory was tall and lean and about thirty-five, which put him ten years older than Halstead. The dark hat and clothes he wore also served to make him look older.
As usual, Billy Sunday was right behind him, prodding a man along at the end of a Winchester. The black man was as tall and lean as Mackey and about the same age. The two men had ridden together in the cavalry, and Billy had been Mackey’s deputy in Dover Station and now here in Helena. Dover Station did not exist anymore, but their friendship had endured.
Halstead noticed the prisoner was a sandy-haired man who looked to be on the verge of tears. Halstead had seen many a man cry when they found themselves at the wrong end of a gun where Mackey or Sunday were concerned.
Halstead watched Mackey draw Adair to a halt in front of the corpse at his feet. The black mare caught the scent of blood in the air and tossed her head. Halstead knew the smell of death did not spook her. If anything, it brought her to life. Adair was a war horse in every sense of the word.
Halstead touched the brim of his hat to Mackey. “Good morning.”
Mackey looked around at the two corpses in the thoroughfare. “Wasn’t for them.” He nodded over toward Sandborne. “Looks like you left one alive.”
“Not for long,” Halstead told him. “I hit an artery. He’ll bleed out in a minute or two.”
Billy stood up in the stirrups and cut loose with a low, long whistle as he kept the sandy-haired man covered with his Winchester. “Looks like it took two shots a piece to finish them off. You losing your touch already, nephew?”
Halstead expected some ribbing from the man he considered an uncle. “Just being thorough is all.”
But Mackey had not been in a kidding kind of mood as of late. He was responsible for a territory larger than some European countries, which left little time for jokes. “They come at you because of Zimmerman’s bounty?”
“That’s what the dying one over there told me.” Halstead looked at the sandy-haired prisoner whose eyes were already welling up. “Who’s your new friend?”
“We came running as soon as we heard the shots,” Billy said. “We found this one creeping up the street heading this way. Rifle in hand.”
Halstead looked at the sandy-haired prisoner. He was trying really hard to look straight ahead instead of looking down at the corpse on the ground.
He grabbed the prisoner by the neck and bent it, so he had no choice but to look at the man at his feet. “You were with these boys, weren’t you?”
“I was.” The prisoner swallowed hard and shut his eyes. “But I don’t want to see them like this, please. They were my brothers.”
“Where’d you ride in from?” Mackey asked.
The man shut his eyes tight, forcing tears to stream down his cheeks. “We rode in here from Bisbee, Idaho, last night. We’d heard about that bounty the outlaw fella put on your head. Zimmerman I think his name is.”
“Zimmerman.” Billy frowned.
Halstead asked him, “You hear about the bounty from Zimmerman personally or from someone else?”
“We heard it from four men we met who rode through Bisbee about a few weeks ago. Said they were riding up here to put a bullet in a man named Halstead and collect the reward.” The prisoner chanced a look at Halstead. “Seeing as how you’re Halstead, I guess they didn’t collect.”
Halstead remembered them. Four loud-mouthed drunks who took him on after spending half a day in The Wicked Woman saloon drinking some courage. They had collected plenty of lead for their trouble, but no gold. “You boys farmers?”
The prisoner shut his eyes again and shrugged. “Tried to be. Ain’t got much to show for it except aches and blisters and bills. When those boys rode into town on a Saturday night bragging about how much money they’d get for killing you, a bunch of us figured we ought to have a go at that reward money instead, so . . .”
Halstead waited for more but realized that was all the man decided to say. He was smarter than he looked. If he had kept talking, he would have talked himself into a noose. As it was, he was looking at ten years hard labor.
“Open your eyes,” Mackey ordered him.
The man did as he was told and held a hand to his mouth as he saw Sandborne slowly lower his rifle. There was no need to cover a dead man.
“That’s Reb,” the prisoner said.
“Not anymore.” Mackey beckoned Sandborne to come over to them. When the young deputy got there, he said, “Take this man into custody and lock him up. Send word for the coroner to bring his wagon. I’ll keep watch over everything until they get here.”
The young deputy grabbed hold of the prisoner and shoved him in the direction of the jail.
As they watched Sandborne do his duty, Halstead looked up at Mackey and Billy. “The kid’s really grown up this past year or so, hasn’t he?”
“We all have,” Billy said. “Guess we’ve had to.”
Halstead could not disagree with them. In the span of about twelve months or more, they had gone from being the law in Dover Station, Montana, to being the law for the entire territory and with only a few more men than they’d had with them in Dover Station.
Mackey had gotten married and watched his hometown burn in the same fire that took his father. It was a lot of a change in a short amount of time. Most men would have buckled under the pressure or at least shown some signs of strain. But Aaron Mackey was not most men.
Mackey had always been older than his years, even when Halstead remembered him as a cavalry lieutenant in Arizona where Sim Halstead, his father, served as his sergeant. Mackey had been stern back then. The years since had only made him grow more so.
The marshal looked over the three bodies spread out before him. “Any sign of the constables?”
Halstead shook his head. “Guess they’re too busy planning the big statehood celebration with the mayor.”
Billy grinned. “Never let a shooting get in the way of a good party.”
“This is bad business,” Mackey said. “Zimmerman’s bounty has turned out to be more trouble than I thought. I figured the five-thousand-dollar reward would help people do our work for us. I didn’t think he’d respond with a ten-thousand-dollar bounty on you.”
“Neither did I,” Halstead admitted. “And I never thought anyone would try to collect based on a rumor.”
Mackey looked down at the dead man lying in the thoroughfare between them. “We’ve been lucky that no real hardcases have come for you, but luck doesn’t last forever. Even people who look like you are getting killed.”
Halstead winced at a memory that still ate at him. The week before, a man who bore a passing resemblance to him and wore all black was killed by a traveling fabric salesman looking to cash in on the bounty. The man he had killed had been an undertaker just arrived in town to look at opening a business in Helena. He could still hear the cries of the man’s family as they gathered around his body. The salesman had shot himself in the head upon learning of his mistake.
“Seems like dead people follow me wherever I go.”
“Knock it off,” Mackey said. “You didn’t do this. Zimmerman did. And it’s going to keep on happening while you’re in Helena. Good thing we caught a break this morning.”
Halstead was suddenly interested. “What kind of break?”
Mackey deferred to Billy. “We got a letter from Jack McBride, the town marshal of Battle Brook and Hard Scrabble. Battle Brook is a boom town in the western part of the territory. Hard Scrabble used to be a jumped-up mining camp, but now it’s a town on the decline.”
Mackey added, “Our old friends Mr. Rice and Mr. Ryan are building up Battle Brook to serve the mines they have up in the hills.”
Halstead held his tongue until they told him what all of this had to do with him.
Billy went on. “McBride wrote to tell us he’s heard rumors from the miners that Rob Brunet is in the area. That name mean anything to you?”
“Sure does,” Halstead said. The man was wanted throughout the West for a series of stagecoach robberies and homestead raids he and his gang had pulled. He was known for striking in Montana or other territories only to jump the border back into Canada. He’d also had more than a few run-ins with the Mounted Police north of the border. “I thought that bastard ran back to Canada last year.”
“He’s back now,” Mackey told him, “but we don’t know if it’s just him or his gang is with him. McBride says he’s heard rumors that he’s fallen in with some bad company, possibly Ed Zimmerman.”
“Zimmerman.” Halstead said the name as if it was a curse. “Seems too far away from civilization for Zimmerman’s tastes.”
“Which makes it a perfect place for a man with five thousand dollars on his head to hide out,” Mackey told him. “McBride thinks he’s hiding out around Hard Scrabble. Makes sense since everything’s relocating from there to Battle Brook.”
Halstead felt a mixture of dread and excitement begin to spread through him. “Guess you’ll be sending me out there to get him.”
“I am,” Mackey said, “but it’s not my first choice.”
Halstead frowned. “Thanks for the confidence, boss.”
Mackey’s jaw tightened. “It’s got nothing to do with you and everything to do with the terrain. Those hills are dangerous for anyone, especially for someone like you who’s still new to the territory. They’re bad in summer and even worse now in late fall. Normally, me and Billy would go, but with all this statehood nonsense going on, we’re needed here. That’s why I’m sending Sandborne with you.”
Halstead’s dread overcame whatever excitement he had been feeling. He had nothing against Joshua. If anything, he was too fond of him to risk his life going against a man like Zimmerman. “Aaron, I don’t think that’s a good idea. He’s a bit green and—”
Mackey looked down at him, and Halstead felt his throat go dry.
“Josh is young, but he’s capable. He grew up here and knows how to handle himself in the snow and the mountains. You don’t, so he’s going with you.”
Halstead knew all that, but there was more at stake here than just knowing how to handle the elements. “Zimmerman’s not the kind of man you cut your teeth on, Aaron. He hits hard and he hits fast.”
“So do you,” Mackey reminded him, “and he’s excellent at following orders. Unlike you.”
The look Billy gave Halstead told him to stop arguing. And he had learned from experience that Billy was rarely wrong.
Halstead said what he knew Mackey wanted to hear. “Sounds like we’ll be able to learn a good bit from each other.”
Mackey nodded. The discussion was over. “McBride’s a good man. Billy and I served with him a bit in Arizona. Tall man and tougher than he looks. And I’d appreciate it if you didn’t give him the same kind of greeting you gave Sheriff Boddington in Silver Cloud.”
Halstead closed his eyes. He wondered if Mackey would ever let him live that down. “That was different.”
Billy said, “McBride’s different, too. You two will get along just fine.”
Mackey went back to looking over the bodies in the thoroughfare. “The train leaves in three hours. The journey lasts a couple of days, depending on the conditions of the tracks. You’ll get off the train at a place called Wellspring. It’s barely a town, and the sheriff is an old fool named Howard. No need to check in with him when you get there. If all goes well, you won’t have to deal with him.”
Halstead would remember that. “Anything else?”
“There’s a stage that can run you up to Battle Brook,” Billy told him, “but with the price on your head, I’d avoid it. That means you boys will have to travel off the road to get there. You’d best get busy outfitting yourself. Get a mule from the livery and put two tents and provisions for a three-day ride on our account at the general store.”
Mackey added, “I’ll give the warrants on Brunet and Zimmerman to Sandborne. He’ll help get the animals loaded on the train for you. The governor would like to be able to announce we’ve captured Zimmerman and Brunet at the statehood celebration in a week or so, but don’t let that rush you. Stopping them is more important than his announcement.”
Halstead was glad Mackey saw it that way. “Sounds like I have a lot of work to do. Best get to it.” He touched the brim of his hat as he began to head toward the general store when Mackey called out to him.
“One more thing. Best start getting in the habit of picking up your brass. I spend more on bullets for you than the rest of the marshals combined. It’s cheaper to reload them than to buy new.”
Halstead had no intention of reusing a bullet he had spent killing a man. But he saw no reason to argue with Mackey about it. “Guess it’s a sign of how popular I am.”
“Expensive, too.” Mackey looked away as he stood watch over the carnage. “Bring back Zimmerman and Brunet, Deputy Halstead. Straight up or over the saddle. Makes no difference to me.”
But it made all the difference in the world to Halstead. He had promised to kill the man once and that was exactly what he planned to do.
In the dense forest just outside of the dying town of Hard Scrabble, Edward Zimmerman led Rob Brunet through a snow-covered thicket and into a sparse clearing. The sky was slate gray, and the morning sun was blinding despite the thick clouds.
“Don’t know how the hell you hope to find anything out here with all this snow,” Brunet said. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were setting me up to stop a bullet.”
Zimmerman smiled at his fellow outlaw’s angst. “Never fear, Robert. The only thing I’m setting you up for is success.”
Zimmerman’s mount, a skittish bay gelding, caught the scent of death lingering in the air and shied away from it. A spur to the belly and a sharp tug on the reins brought the animal back into submission. “Be mindful of your mount around here,” Zimmerman cautioned. “I’m afraid I had to leave a couple of bodies behind when I was here last.”
Brunet followed Zimmerman’s lead. “As long as you don’t aim to leave another one now, we’ll be fine.”
Realizing they were close enough to the spot; Zimmerman climbed down from the saddle and wrapped his horse’s reins around a nearby bush. He reminded himself to get a better horse when he got back to town. The gelding was a bit too mild for his taste and purpose.
He stepped over the skeletal remains of a leg poking out of the snow and approached a heavy rock that stood out in the middle of the clearing. He bent at the knees and, with little effort, rolled the heavy rock aside so his guest could get a good look at what was beneath it. He took a couple of steps back and gestured down to the deep hole in the ground.
“Voila, mon ami,” he said to Brunet. It was all the French he knew, but enjoyed putting it to good use. “Behold the treasure I promised you.”
Brunet produced a pistol from beneath his coat and aimed it squarely at Zimmerman’s head as he looked over his horse’s head and into the hole. “All I see is a sack in the ground, Zimmerman. Pull it out real nice and slow. And if you pull out anything more than money”—he thumbed back the hammer—“it’ll be the last thing you do.”
Zimmerman dramatically held up his hands and ducked his head. “Robert, my friend. Where’s the trust? I already told you there’s a pistol in the bag for emergencies, but I won’t go near it.”
The burly outlaw with the wild black beard grinned. “I didn’t get this pretty by doing manual labor.” He gestured with the pistol as he said, “You pull it out, leave it on the ground, and step over there where I can see you. And you’d better be as unarmed as you said or . . .”
“Yes, yes, I know. I’ll be the next one left out here,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve already threatened me enough for one day.”
Zimmerman reached into the hole and hefted out a yellow bank satchel. The stenciling on the side of the bag had read “Wells Fargo” once, but the lettering had faded after repeated burials.
His treasure now out in the open, Zimmerman backed away and kept his hands visible as per his earlier agreement with Brunet. He was also unarmed, save for the . . .
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