Legendary national bestselling Western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone begin a new series with the worst men in the west serving in the US Army with Fort Misery.
The baddest men in the West battle for their lives against a relentless band of bloodthirsty prairie rats in Fort Misery—first in an electrifying new Western series from National Bestselling Authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone.
WHERE THE LAND IS UNTAMED—AND SO ARE THE DESPERADOS.
Captain Peter Joseph Kellerman was once a promising career soldier who’d proven his mettle in battle time and again. Now he’s fighting a battle with a whiskey bottle. He’s also in charge of Fort Benjamin Grierson, located west of hell, deep in Arizona Territory’s Mohawk Valley on the arid edge of the Yuma desert. The men under his command aren’t fit to wear the uniform. Killers, thieves, and ravagers condemned to death but who’ve chosen to serve, holding down the hated Fort Misery.
Santiago Lozado, the most wanted bandit on both sides of the border, has set his sights on Fort Misery. He wants vengeance against Kellerman for killing his son and has raised an army of brutal Apaches and Comancheros to slaughter every man wearing Union blue—only to encounter a wild bunch of desperate men unafraid of shedding blood and fighting to the death . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: January 24, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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William W. Johnstone
The dawning sun came up like a flaming Catherine wheel, adding its heat to the furnace of the morning and to the airless prison cell that masqueraded as Captain Peter Joseph Kellerman’s office. Already half drunk, he glanced at the clock on the wall. Twenty minutes until seven.
Twenty minutes before he’d mount the scaffold and hang a man.
A rap-rap-rap on the door.
“Come in,” Kellerman said.
Sergeant Major Saul Olinger slammed to attention and snapped off the palm forward salute of the old Union cavalry. “The prisoner is ready, Captain.”
Kellerman nodded and said, “Stand easy, Saul, for God’s sake. There’s nobody here but us, and you know where it is.”
Olinger, a burly man with muttonchop whiskers and the florid, broken-veined cheeks of a heavy drinker, opened the top drawer of the captain’s desk and fished out a bottle of whiskey and two glasses. He poured generous shots for himself and his commanding officer.
“How is he taking it?” Kellerman said.
“Not well. He knows he’s dying.”
Kellerman, tall, wide-shouldered, handsome in a rugged way, his features enhanced by a large dragoon mustache, nodded and said, “Dying. I guess he started to die the moment we found him guilty three days ago.”
Olinger downed his drink, poured another. He looked around as though making sure there was no one within earshot and said, “Joe, you don’t have to do this. I can see it done.”
“I’m his commanding officer. It’s my duty to be there.”
The sergeant major’s gaze moved to the window, and he briefly looked through dusty panes into the sunbaked parade ground. His eyes returned to Kellerman. “Private Patrick McCarthy did the crime and now he’s paying for it. That’s how it goes.”
The captain drank his whiskey. “He’s eighteen years old, for God’s sake. Just a boy.”
“When we were with the First Maryland, how many eighteen-year-old boys did we kill at Brandy Station and Gettysburg, Joe? At least they died honorably.”
“Hanging is a dishonorable death.”
“Rape and murder is a dishonorable crime. The Lipan girl was only sixteen.”
Kellerman sighed. “How are the men?”
“Angry. Most of them say murdering an Apache girl is not a hanging offense.”
“That doesn’t surprise me. How many rapists and murderers do we have?”
Olinger’s smile was bitter. “Maybe half the troop.”
“And the rest are deserters, thieves, malingerers, and mutineers, commanded by a drunk.” Kellerman shook his head. “Why don’t you ask for a transfer out of this hellhole, Saul? You have the Medal of Honor. Hell, man, you can choose your posting.”
“Joe, we’ve been together since Bull Run. I’m not quitting you now.” The sergeant major glanced at the clock and slammed to attention. “Almost time, sir.”
“Go ahead. I’ll be right there.”
Olinger saluted and left.
Captain Kellerman donned his campaign hat, buckled on his saber, a weapon useless against Apache but effective enough in a close fight with Comancheros, and returned the whiskey bottle to his desk. His old, forgotten rosary caught his eye. He picked up the beads and stared at them for a long moment and then tossed them back in the drawer. God had stopped listening to his prayers long ago . . . and right now he had a soldier to hang.
No other frontier army post had gallows, but in Fort Misery they were a permanent fixture, lovingly cared for by Tobias Zimmermann, the civilian carpenter, a severe man of high intelligence who also acted as hangman. So far, in the fort’s year of existence, he’d pulled the lever on two soldiers and at night he slept like a baby.
Zimmermann, Sergeant Major Olinger, and a Slavic Catholic priest with a name nobody could pronounce, stood on the platform along with the condemned man, a thin young towhead with vicious green eyes. Fort Misery’s only other officer, Lieutenant James Hall, was thirty years old and some questionable bookkeeping of regimental funds had earned him a one-way ticket from Fort Grant to the wastelands. A beautiful officer with shoulder-length black hair and a full beard that hung halfway down his chest, Hall stood, saber drawn, in front of the dismounted troop: thirty-seven hard-bitten, shabby men standing more or less to attention. The troop had no designation, was not part of a regiment, and did not appear in army rolls. Wages and supplies were the responsibility of a corporal and a civilian clerk in Yuma, and deliveries of both were hit or miss. As one old soldier told a reporter in 1923, “The army sent us to hell for our sins, and our only chance of redemption was to lay low and die under the guidon like heroes.”
A murmur buzzed like a crazed bee through the troop as Captain Kellerman mounted the steps to the gallows platform. Private McCarthy’s arms and legs were bound with rope and Sergeant Major Olinger had to lift him onto the trapdoor. Zimmermann slipped a black hood over the young man’s head, then the hemp noose. He then returned to the lever that would drop the door and plunge the young soldier into eternity.
The army considered their castoffs less than human, and McCarthy lived up to that opinion. He died like a dog, howling for mercy, his cries muffled by the hood. Despite the efforts of Lieutenant Hall, the flat of his saber wielded with force, the soldiers broke ranks and crowded around the scaffold. Horrified upturned faces revealed the strain of the execution, soldiers pushed to the limit of their endurance.
“Let him go!” a man yelled, and the rest took it up as a chant . . . .
Let him go! Let him go!
A few soldiers tried to climb onto the gallows, but Sergeant Major Olinger drew his revolver and stepped forward. “I’ll kill any man who sets foot on these gallows!” he roared. “Get back, you damned scum, or you’ll join McCarthy in the grave.”
That morning Saul Olinger was a fearsome figure, and there wasn’t a man present who doubted he’d shoot to kill. One by one they stepped away, muttering as the condemned man’s spiking shrieks shattered their already shredded nerves.
The priest’s prayer for the dead rose above the din. Sent by his superiors to convert the heathen Comanche, he’d attended six firing squads, but this was his first hanging, and it showed on him, his face the color of wood ash.
Captain Joe Kellerman—he used his middle name because Peter had been the handle of his abusive father—said, loud enough that all could hear, “This man had a fair court-martial, was found guilty of rape and murder, and sentenced to hang. There’s nothing more to be said.”
He turned his head. “Mr. Zimmermann, carry out the sentence.”
The carpenter nodded and yanked on the lever. The trap opened, and Private Patrick McCarthy plunged to his death. His neck broke clean, and his screeches stopped abruptly, like water when a faucet is shut off.
But the ensuing silence was clamorous, as though a thousand phantom alarm bells rang in the still, thick air.
And then Private Dewey Bullard took things a step further.
As Lieutenant Hall ushered the men toward the mess for breakfast, Bullard, thirty years old and a known thief and mutineer, turned and yelled, “Kellerman, you’re a damned murderer!”
“Lieutenant Hall, arrest that man,” the captain said, pointing. “I’ll deal with him later.”
Sergeant Major Olinger stepped closer to Kellerman and said, “His name is Bullard. A troublemaker.”
“I know who he is. He won’t trouble us for much longer.”
“Insubordination, plain and simple,” Olinger said.
“Yes, it was, and I won’t allow him to infect the rest of the men with it,” Captain Kellerman said, his mouth set in a grim line.
After breakfast, the troop was assembled on the western edge of the post that looked out over the harsh wasteland of the Yuma Desert. A few blanket Apache, mostly Lipan, camped nearby, close to a boarded-up sutler’s store that had never opened and a few storage shacks. The parade ground, headquarters building, enlisted men’s barracks, latrines, and stables lay behind Captain Joe Kellerman as he walked in front of his ranked men. Dewey Bullard, under guard, stood a distance away, facing a stark sea of sand and distant dunes ranked among the most brutal deserts on earth.
“You men know why we’re here,” the captain said. “Under any circumstances I will not have insubordination at Fort Benjamin Grierson. I will not tolerate it. Deserters, thieves, malingerers, murderers, and rapists some of you; you’re the soldiers no one wants. Damn your eyes, you’re all condemned men, but the army is stretched thin on the frontier, and you were given a choice: death by firing squad or hanging, or the joys of Fort Misery. Well, you chose this hell on earth and now you’re stuck with it.”
Kellerman needed a drink, the effect of his morning bourbons wearing thin.
“Look around you,” he said. “There were eighty of you when this post opened and now there’s thirty-six, since Private Bullard will not be rejoining us. Forty-four dead. Nine of them were deserters whose bones are no doubt out there bleaching in the desert. I executed three of you by firing squad and two by hanging, as you just witnessed. The other twenty-nine were killed by bronco Comanche and Comancheros. I know because I saw most of them die. And why did they die? I’ll tell you why. It’s because they were poor soldiers, coming to us half-trained and barely able to ride a horse. As a result the Comanche gunned them down like ducks in a shooting gallery. That will now change. By God, I’ll make fighting men of you or kill you all in the process. In the meantime, I will not have an insubordinate piece of dirt like Dewey Bullard undermining my authority, especially now, when this post is under siege.” Kellerman paused for effect and then said, “In an alliance from hell, the Comanche and the Mexican slaver Santiago Lozado and his Comancheros vow to wipe us off the map by executing every man in the garrison. Well I say, let them try!”
To the captain’s surprise, that last drew a ragged cheer, and Lieutenant Hall whispered, “There’s hope for them yet, Captain.”
“Yes, be hopeful, Lieutenant, Just don’t bet the farm on it,” Kellerman said. Then, “Canteen!”
Sergeant Major Olinger formally presented a filled canteen to Kellerman, who hung it around Bullard’s neck and then said, “Youngest soldier, step forward!”
A fresh-faced seventeen-year-old with a penchant for desertion took a step from the ranks, saluted, and said, “Private Reid reporting for duty, sir.”
“You know what you have to do?”
“Don’t stint, Private Reid.”
“Then stand by.” Kellerman directed his attention to Bullard. “Private Dewey Bullard, for the offense of rank insubordination to the detriment of military discipline and other past transgressions, I banish you from this post in perpetuity. If you make any attempt to return, you will be shot on sight. Do you understand?” Bullard said nothing and the captain repeated, “Do you understand?”
Bullard’s black eyes blazed dark fire. “You’re sending me to my death.”
“You have water, make good use of it,” Kellerman said. “Now begone from here and let us never see your face again. Youngest soldier Reid, get ready.” Then to the pair of troopers holding Bullard: “Bend him over. No, right over.” Bullard cursed and struggled but the captain had chosen the two strongest men in the troop to hold him. His arms elevated in vice-like grips, chest parallel to the ground, he ceased to battle his captors, and Kellerman said, “Youngest soldier Reid, carry out your order.”
Private Reid grinned, relishing the task at hand. In the past he’d been bulled by Bullard, and now it was payback time. Reid took a few steps running and slammed the toe of his riding boot into the man’s butt. The kick was so furious, so powerful, that the two soldiers holding Bullard lost their grip, and the man tumbled headfirst into hot sand.
“About . . . face!” Lieutenant Hall immediately ordered, and the troop turned its back on the stunned and hurting Bullard, as did Captain Kellerman and Sergeant Major Olinger.
The soldiers stepped away, and not an eye turned in Bullard’s direction. The man was banished and was now invisible . . . as though he never existed.
“Rider came in under a white flag, Captain,” Sergeant Major Olinger said. “Comanchero by the look of him.”
“You figure he’s here to negotiate a truce?”
“I have my doubts about that, sir. He looks arrogant; like a man with an ultimatum.”
Joe Kellerman rose from his desk and swayed slightly, his morning bourbon taking effect. “I’ll talk to him,”’ he said. “By the way, my breakfast bacon had green spots, the beans tasted stale, and the coffee was weak.”
“Supplies are low, sir.”
“Send a patrol to Devil’s Rock, see if Yuma got up off its ass long enough to send us a supply wagon.”
“Have the Navajo ride scout for the patrol.”
“Do you trust him?”
“No, but he’s all we’ve got. I reckon Ahiga doesn’t like eating rotten bacon any more than I do.”
“I’ll send out Corporal Hawes and six men right away.”
The captain shook his head. “Hawes! Damn it, I know Hawes. When he was at Fort Griffin everybody knew he murdered and robbed that whiskey drummer for the ten dollars and five cents in his pocket.”
“And that’s the truth, but Dave Hawes is a good soldier, and we don’t have many of them,” Olinger said.
Kellerman buckled on his recently issued .45 Colt Single Action Army revolver and grabbed his hat from the rack. “Right now I’d forgive a hundred mortal sins for a hundred good soldiers. Now let’s talk with the Comanchero. This should be interesting.”
The Comanchero was a smallish man who wore the white shirt and pants of the Mexican peon, his chest crossed by bandoliers, a wide sombrero tipped back on his head, rope sandals on his feet revealing callused, gnarled toes. He sat a paint pony, probably of Comanche origin, and had a Colt in an open holster buckled around his waist. He carried a white sheet tied to a 10th Cavalry guidon, a deliberate insult.
When the man saw the shoulder straps on Captain Kellerman’s shirt, he saluted and said, “Buenos días, mi Capitan.”
“Buenos días. What can I do for you?”
“For me, nothing,” the Comanchero said. He had quick, black eyes, and the mouth under his mustache was a straight, tough line that now relaxed in a smile. “But I bring you greetings and a wish for good health from the hidalgo, don Santiago Miguel Lozado.”
“So, the raggedy-assed bandido is calling himself a hidalgo now. He’s come up in the world.”
The Mexican’s smile slipped. “Oh, señor, I cannot tell mi general that. He would be very hurt. He is a man of a sensitive nature who longs for peace, not war.”
“And what does he want from me? War or peace?”
“Don Santiago wants very little.”
“And that’s what he’ll get . . . very little.”
The Comanchero smiled, his hand waving. “It is but a small request.”
“The general and hidalgo desires that you and your soldiers immediately pack up, leave this stinking fort, and never return.” The man smiled. “Don Santiago is being generous. He wants only what is best for you and your soldados.”
“And if I don’t leave?”
The Comanchero chewed on the corner of his mustache, then said, “Then it will be very bad for you, I think.”
“I have a message for Lozado,” Kellerman said.
“Ah, then you’ve come to your senses at last.”
“Tell Lozado he must immediately put a halt to his bandit activities, including running guns to the Apache and slaves to the Comanche. If he complies, I will allow him and his rabble to return peaceably to Sonora. Tell him I can’t offer the same generous terms to the Comanche.”
“And if he refuses?” The Comanchero’s voice was tight, hardened by anger.
“Then I will kill Santiago Lozado and all with him.”
“You already killed his son. Isn’t that enough for you?”
“I killed Comancheros. I didn’t know his son was among them.”
The Mexican fell silent. He pulled down the brim of his sombrero like a monk’s cowl, his shaded eyes glittering. The heat had bleached the sky into faded blue and the morning was heavy and oppressive, lying mercilessly on the suffering land like a smallpox blanket. A few idling soldiers crowded close, listening to every word, their faces carved from stone.
Finally, the Comanchero spoke. “Capitán, though grieving for his son, the hidalgo don Santiago Miguel Lozado extended the hand of friendship and you knocked it away. The result will be the death of every man on this post, and for you, a terrible fate. Mi general has made it clear that if you refuse his offer, he will nail you to the wall of a building and skin you alive. I beg you to reconsider and pack your bags and leave. Leave now, before it’s too late. This will not be the first time that mi general has extended mercy to the undeserving.”
“You heard my terms. I will not change them,” Kellerman said.
The Mexican leaned from his horse and spat into the dirt. “Pah! Your terms are worthless, the bluff of a frightened man. Do as the general says and save your lives.” Then, talking to the soldiers, “Time is running out for all of you. You’re all dead men. Surrender now while you still can.”
Concern and some fear showed on the faces of the surrounding soldiers as Kellerman said, “I made a mistake. Perhaps I didn’t put my refusal in strong enough terms.”
He unbuttoned his holster flap, drew his Colt, and fired. His bullet hit the middle of the X made by the Comanchero’s bandoliers, crashed through leather, bone, and flesh, and tore into the man’s heart. The Comanchero shrieked, tumbled off his horse, and was as dead as hell in a parson’s parlor when he thudded to the ground.
“Perhaps that answer was strong enough,” Kellerman said as smoke trickled from the muzzle of his revolver. “One of you men, bring me Mr. Zimmermann. I have a job for him.”
It was a measure of Sergeant Major Olinger’s shocked surprise that he momentarily forgot his military discipline and addressed his commanding officer by name. “Joe, what the hell?”
“Lozado wanted an answer to his ultimatum. Well, I gave him one,” Kellerman said.
“But . . . but he was under a flag of truce.”
Captain Kellerman holstered his revolver. “A flag of truce means nothing to Santiago Lozado and his kind. All they understand is force.”
“He’ll come at us,” Olinger said.
“No doubt he will. We burned him the last time.”
“And it cost us three dead and a couple close to it, Captain. That was a month ago, and the Navajo says Lozado’s numbers have grown since then. He says twelve more Comancheros came up from Sonora with the latest slave train and six cases of Henry rifles, and there are at least fifty Comanche in camp.”
“If the Navajo isn’t lying, we figure Lozado now has about a hundred fighting men,” Kellerman said.
“And maybe more.”
“Yeah, and maybe more.” Kellerman smiled. “And that’s why we’re here at Fort Misery, Sergeant Major.”
“ ‘ You are requested and required, with all expedition, to abolish slave and gun running from Mexico into the Arizona Territory and bring the perpetrators to swift justice. ’ I recollect that part of General Sherman’s letter.”
“So do I. Easy for him to say from his cozy berth in Washington.” Kellerman thought for a moment and then said, “I don’t want us to meet him in the open field again, so we’ll let Lozado come to us. As before, station the pickets and we’ll fortify the headquarters building and the infirmary. My compliments to Lieutenant Hall and ask him to report to my office in an hour.”
“Yes, sir, and I’ll give Corporal Hawes his orders.”
“Yes, tell him to take the wagon and woe betide him if he doesn’t come back with supplies.”
Sergeant Major Olinger saluted and left, just as Tobias Zimmermann elbowed his way through a crowd of gawking soldiers and said, “You wanted to see me, Cap’n.” He glanced at the body. “I heard the shot. A coffin?”
“No, I have other plans for this man. I think very soon we’ll come under attack from Comancheros, so tell your wife not to leave headquarters. If she needs water, tell her to ask a soldier to take a bucket to the seep.”
Mary Zimmermann was a tall, thin woman, straitlaced, much given to prayer, good works, lectures on the evils of demon drink and fornication and the power of prune juice to keep a person regular. She was the camp washerwoman and cook and the soldiers referred to her as the Virgin Mary.
Tobias Zimmermann listened to Captain Kellerman’s instructions for the Comanchero’s corpse and said, “Cap’n, I’ve never done the like before.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Mr. Zimmermann, so get it done.”
“He brought a guidon.”
“Yes, and he’s taking it back. Nail the pole to his hand if you have to, but I want him carrying the guidon when he leaves here.”
“It’s a strange order, Cap’n Kellerman.”
“And one you’ll carry out. Just get it done. Tell me when you’re finished.”
The carpenter shook his head. “Fought in the war, didn’t you?”
“It hardened you.”
“How very perceptive you are, Mr. Zimmermann. Life hardened me. And now just surviving in this hellhole is finishing the job.”
Zimmermann nodded. “Your dead man will be all ready to go in an hour.”
Captain Peter Joseph Kellerman was a conflicted man.
The army expected him to seek out and destroy the enemy with his ragtag bunch of rejects, at lea. . .
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