Johnstone Country. Where Real Cowboys Never Run. They Fight Back.
The latest action-packed historical western from national bestselling authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone in which former Pinkerton man Buck Trammel takes up the badge in Wyoming Territory.
Ben Washington and his gang of murdering prairie rats have been terrorizing Wyoming Territory for quite a spell: rustling cattle, robbing stagecoaches and railroads, and slaughtering settlers. When Sheriff Buck Trammel of Laramie learns that Washington and his killers have been menacing an innocent family, he and his deputy ride out and bring Washington in the hard way—at the barrel of a gun.
When word spreads fast of Washington’s capture, gambler Adam Hagen begins taking wagers on the outlaw’s fate—where and when his gang will bust him loose—and quickly finds himself sitting atop a mountain of cash. Naturally, greed forces Hagen to open the stakes nationwide. As the stink of easy money grows, the New Orleans gang known as the LeBlanc Brothers crawl into town posing as cattlemen. And the LeBlanc’s never leave a job empty-handed . . .
When the LeBlanc Brothers team up with Washington’s cut-throats join Washington cut-throats, Trammel is forced to play a dangerous high-stakes game of own where any move he makes could not only cost a deputy his life, but threaten justice in Laramie forever.
Release date: December 26, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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Killers Never Sleep
William W. Johnstone
“It’s him, boys,” the volunteer lawman told them. “It’s Ben Washington himself. Don’t let these old eyes fool you. I saw him as clear as I’m seeing each of you right now. He rode right past my store as bold as brass in broad daylight and looked me over as if I were nothing to nobody. And me knowing him since before he took his first steps, too.” The old man rubbed his arms for warmth. “Never saw such a cold look in a man’s eyes, at least not while he was still breathing.”
Deputy Sherwood Blake and Deputy John “Hawkeye” Hauk had been in Trammel’s office when the constable had first rushed to town to tell them the outlaw was in the county.
Hawkeye’s question was for the benefit of the rest of the deputies listening. “Why did you come here instead of Cheyenne? It’s the same distance between Woodbine and here. The warrant on Washington is federal and they’ve got deputy U.S. Marshals there.”
“On account of Lefty Rollins being the only one in the capital,” Peyton explained. “His men are spread out all over the territory serving warrants or bringing men in for trial. Lefty was good in his day, but those days are long gone.”
Hawkeye asked another question. “You’re sure it was Ben Washington?”
“I had the displeasure of watching him grow up,” Peyton said. “That was a long time ago, but he’s the image of his old man now. Short and scrawny with a mess of wild hair that not even a good dunking in a barrel of rainwater could tame. He’s got his father’s look about him, too. That same arrogant swagger, even on horseback. I saw him stop by the Watering Hole Saloon first before he rode past my store on his way to his folk’s old spread at the edge of town.”
The constable pawed at his long white beard as he continued to tell them what he had seen. “I know Ben’s a wanted man, Sheriff, and I’ll admit I was trying to get up enough courage to arrest him as soon as he came out of the saloon. But when he did, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I couldn’t even move out of my own doorway. I just stood there like an old scarecrow in a field. He’s killed better men than me. Younger men, too. I . . .”
“Knock it off.” Trammel had always liked Merle Peyton and did not want to see him needlessly punish himself. “Washington would’ve killed you if you’d gone anywhere near him. You did the right thing by coming straight here as soon as you could. You said you think he was visiting his folks?”
“No. I said he was going out to their old spread,” Peyton clarified. “The bank here in Laramie threw his folks off their land a few years ago, long after Ben became an outlaw. His family had fallen behind on their payments to the bank.”
Peyton’s eyes got that far away look again. “I’d warned Ben’s father not to buy that land. I’ve lost count of how many men have tried to make something out of that place and failed over the years. But being a Washington, he was always too stubborn and proud to listen. Some folks in those parts think the land is cursed and given the way Ben Washington turned out, I’m inclined to agree with them. That boy’s always had something of the devil about him, even when he was just learning how to walk.”
Trammel did not know much about Ben Washington except by his reputation. He and his gang were the most wanted bunch west of the Mississippi. They had raided wagon trains, stagecoach lines, and railroad strong boxes for years. There was hardly a bank in the Wyoming Territory that they had not robbed yet, but Laramie’s bank was one of them.
Trammel did not know much about Woodbine Township, either, except that it was a tiny settlement on the outskirts of the county in the opposite direction of Blackstone. Peyton’s general store, the Watering Hole Saloon, and a blacksmith were the only businesses that met the immediate needs of the few farms and ranches scattered around it. He knew they always came to Laramie for their more important needs and large orders each season but preferred to keep to themselves.
Deputy Blake finished checking his pistol and holstered it. “You think Ben Washington came to town looking for his folks, Merle?”
“I don’t think so,” the constable said. “I heard his folks died soon after they lost the place. First his mother, then his father. I think he might be looking for some kind of revenge.”
“Any idea on where he is now?” Deputy Gary Bush asked.
Peyton did. “I might’ve been frozen stiff when Ben fixed me with a stare, but I followed him a good ways to see where he was heading. I watched him run down Lou Finney while he was working one of his horses in the corral, then herded Lou and his children back into the house. They’re the people who took over the old Washington spread. Lou’s wife had been putting clothes out on the line to dry at the time, and Ben got hold of her, too.”
Trammel finished loading the last round into his rifle. “How many kids does Finney have and how old are they?”
“A boy and a girl around six or seven. The mother, Mary, looked like she might be working on their third, but I can’t say for certain.”
Trammel knew the presence of women and children in the house would make getting Ben Washington out of there tricky, assuming he was still there. “Do you think he might’ve left by now?”
Merle Peyton’s hands began to shake. “If he hasn’t already killed them and moved on, he’ll be there. I stopped by the Watering Hole and asked the bartender what Washington did while he was there. He told me Ben was asking questions about who had moved into his family’s place and the drunks were foolish enough to tell him. I guess he’s blaming the Finneys for moving onto his parents’ land, not that it was their fault. If anyone was to blame for them losing it, it was the bank here in Laramie, not the Finneys.”
Deputy Blake folded his arms and asked Trammel, “How do you want us to handle this, Buck?”
Trammel knew there was only one way available to them. He looked out the window at the darkening sky. “Woodbine’s a little over an hour’s ride from here. It’ll be dark by the time we get there, which is good for us.”
He looked at his deputies. All of them knew how dangerous Ben Washington was, yet each man was eager to play a part in bringing him in. But Trammel had to consider Laramie’s safety first. No one man was more important than an entire town.
“I wish I could take all of you with me, but with Hagen’s Cattleman’s Association convention going on over at The Laramie Grand right now, I need most of you to stay here in case things get out of hand.”
He nodded toward Hawkeye, the youngest deputy in his office, who had also been his partner during his days as the town marshal in Blackstone. Despite his tender years, he had proven himself to be a good deputy. “You’ll be in charge while I’m gone. Make sure those cattlemen don’t have too much of a fun time at the town’s expense. Keep them in the hotel if you have to. Blake and I will ride back to Woodbine with Merle to bring Washington here where he belongs. We’ll hold him downstairs until his trial.”
He saw the men trade curious glances amongst themselves. He knew they might not agree with his decision to leave Hawkeye in charge while he was gone, but they did not have to like it. “You boys better get out there and make sure you’re visible. Don’t tell anyone about Washington being around or we’re liable to have a lot of scared citizens on our hands. Blake and I will be back as soon as we can.”
Hawkeye spoke up as he led his fellow deputies out of the office. “Let’s head over to Hagen’s place and spread out from there. Those cattlemen will have a snoot full of liquor in them by now and we’ll want them to know we’re around.”
Trammel waited until Blake was the last man in his office before he told the constable, “I know you’re nervous, Merle. All you have to do is lead us there. Blake and me will take care of the rest.”
Peyton continued to flatten his beard as he stood. “Woodbine’s not much of a town, sheriff, but it’s mine. I buckled under Ben Washington once, but I won’t do it again. You can count on me. I’ll go get my horse.”
Trammel began to follow the constable when Blake held him back. “A quick word, Sheriff?”
Trammel let Merle Peyton go ahead. “Make it quick. The Finneys don’t have much time.”
Blake checked to make sure Peyton was out of earshot before saying, “Putting Hawkeye in charge of the men was a mistake. Charlie Root’s next in line. It should’ve been him.”
Trammel and Blake had not always agreed on what was best for the town, but he was disappointed that he had brought it up at such a delicate time. “Root might be the senior man, but Adam Hagen is throwing a big party for his cattleman buddies over at his saloon tonight. You know how he likes to cause trouble and Hawkeye’s the only one he’ll listen to besides me.”
“And if Hagen breaks the law, he ought to pay for it,” Blake said. “Make an example of him. I thought we’re supposed to enforce the law, even with our friends.”
Trammel was in no mood to explain himself, not even to his senior deputy. “We’re paid to keep the peace, Blake. We have a better chance of doing that if Hagen listens to reason.” He took his Winchester from his desk and beckoned Blake to move. “Now, if there are no further objections, I’d like to grab Ben Washington before he gets around to killing that family.”
Adam Hagen did not even pretend to follow the conversation as the cattlemen discussed their business. He had not invited them to hold their annual meeting at The Laramie Grand because he wanted to become a rancher. He had invited them here so he could begin to reacquire power throughout the Wyoming Territory. Power on his terms.
Just about the only thing Hagen liked better than showing off was showing off in style. And as the owner of The Laramie Grand, he could finally do what he loved most.
The suite where he now entertained cattlemen from across the territory and beyond was the jewel in his tarnished crown. He had survived many lean years since leaving the army. Scrounging to make a living on the riverboats that paddled their way up and down the mighty Mississippi River. Scaring up card games wherever he could in cow towns like Abilene and Dodge City. He had been forced to return to Wyoming when his luck ran out in Kansas, and he had hoped to take his birthright from his father up in Blackstone. He had not been expecting his family to rob him of the fortune he had long schemed to control one day.
But Laramie had made him a new man. He not only controlled all the biggest saloons in town, but now, the hotel that had once been known as The Tinder Box Saloon had risen from the ashes of his ambition to become the very embodiment of his dreams. Hagen had succeeded in rebuilding his life and mortgaged everything he owned into making The Laramie Grand an oasis of opulence in the Wyoming Territory.
Everything in the hotel had been crafted to his exact specifications. Here in his suite and throughout the hotel, fine drapery and ornate furnishings gave the place a warm, inviting feeling that spoke of great luxury. The gaming floor had been modeled after some of the finest gambling dens he had visited during his time in New Orleans and was designed to attract a similar, well-heeled clientele.
Here in his office suite, he held court. The furniture was heavy, and the fabric on the cushions expensive. Even his oaken desk sported intricate carvings of Greek gods holding up the tabletop. The liquor the cattlemen drank had come all the way from Scotland. The lobsters and crab had been brought by train from Boston. And the women on each man’s arm had been brought to Laramie from the finest houses in New Orleans at considerable expense.
Hagen was pleased to see his guests had been suitably impressed by his efforts, which was why Hagen had brought them here. He had not invited them to The Laramie Grand simply because he wanted to host a party or spread word about his new hotel. Bringing the leading cattlemen from across the territory was an investment in Hagen’s future standing. His reputation had suffered a great deal after his family had turned their backs on him. Events like these could help him regain the influence he had lost.
Hagen looked beyond his current cluster of new acquaintances and noticed two men who had taken a particular interest in his safe. Unlike most businessmen, he had chosen to not hide it and made it the centerpiece of the room. He had taken considerable pride in designing the iron monster with the expectation that a few select guests would not only see it but marvel at it. At six feet in height and almost as wide as a grown man, the safe was as imposing as it was formidable. He wanted these men to see that any attempts to open it would be pointless. And that any money they decided to invest in his hotel would be well guarded.
Hagen had long grown bored with the conversation around him and begged their pardon as he walked over to the two men eyeing the monstrosity. He remembered he had greeted them when they had first arrived at the hotel but could not remember their names.
“I can see you gentlemen appreciate fine art when you see it,” Hagen told them as he gestured with his glass toward the safe. “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?”
“I’ll say.” The taller of the two men sported a wide, drooping moustache. “Special construction from the looks of it.”
Hagen was curious. “You know about safes, Mister . . . ?”
“Carter,” the man shook Hagen’s hand. “Wayne Carter. Got a nice spread of our own up north of here.” He nodded at the man with him. “This is my brother Burt. And as for safes, I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I can tell you didn’t order this out of a catalogue.”
Hagen could not remember inviting anyone by the name of Carter to attend the cattlemen’s convention. He would be sure to have his man, Rube Miller, look into them later.
“That’s because the only catalogue I consulted was right here.” Hagen tapped his temple. “It’s entirely of my own design. I sketched out how I wanted it to look, what I wanted it to be, and the ironsmiths in Cincinnati did the rest. I told them to make her impregnable, and they did.” He knocked on the door and remarked on the lack of an echo. “Solid iron and the door is grooved so it’s nearly impossible to pry open. The locking mechanism is an innovative design from the Yale Lock Company in New England. The combination lock has a timer on it so not even I can open it except during specific times.”
Burt Carter cut loose with a low whistle. “I imagine a custom piece like this must’ve set you back quite a ways.”
Hagen caught a hint of a familiar accent when the brothers spoke. A laziness about the way they pronounced their t’s. “I hear you two have spent some time in New Orleans.”
Wayne did a better job of hiding his surprise than his brother. “Where’d you hear that?”
“From you just now,” Hagen said. “The Cajun inflections are subtle but there if you know what to listen for. I spent a considerable amount of time in New Orleans on the riverboats of the Mississippi, so I’m more aware of it than most. I hope I didn’t offend you by pointing it out.”
Burt looked relieved. “No offense at all, Mr. Hagen. It’s just that we’re ranchers now and we want these folks to take us seriously. New Orleans isn’t exactly a cow town.”
Hagen could appreciate a man wanting to change his past but imagined there was more to the Carter boys than that. He decided there was nothing to be gained at the moment by dwelling on it. “I’m sure you’ll fit in just fine, as long as your money’s real and your credit is good.” He returned his attention to the safe. “That’s why I put so much effort into building this masterpiece. Sometimes, a man has to be willing to spend money if he hopes to make it. And I plan on keeping this baby well fed with cash from my gaming floor downstairs. And seeing as how you two are from New Orleans, I’m sure you found the surroundings familiar.”
“I thought it reminded me of The Beau Soleil,” Burt confessed. “Now I know why.”
Hagen knew the gambling den well. “I hope it brought back fond memories.”
Wayne laughed. “Some of the best times I can’t remember were in The Beau Soleil.”
“A toast, then.” Hagen raised his glass. “Here’s hoping The Laramie Grand can offer you a time you won’t soon forget.”
The men drank and Hagen decided to take the conversation in a new direction. “What did you say the name of your ranch was up north?”
“The Bar C,” Wayne said as his brother hesitated. “We’ve only been at it for a year or so, but it’s already showing great promise. Got ourselves a couple of prized bulls all the way from Texas we think will help us build a fine herd in a few years.”
Hagen had heard of most of the ranches worth knowing in the territory, but the Bar C sounded like a small concern. If it was real. He gestured toward the other guests who were occupied with pretty women who forced themselves to laugh at unfunny jokes that were in poor taste. “You should have no trouble making some new friends here, that is if you can pry them away from the bar and the gambling tables long enough. You’ll find they’re a good bunch on the whole and not above willing to help when they can. Provided there’s something in it for them, of course.”
“Of course,” Wayne said, “thought I must admit that Burt and I aren’t used to this kind of soiree. You grew up around people like this, what with you being King Charles’s son and all.”
Hagen tried not to think much of Charles Hagen these days. He had learned too late that the man had only been an uncle, not his real father. Charles had raised him but had spent the rest of his life making Adam pay dearly for his illegitimacy. “I may have been to the manor born, but I made my own way in life. Hence my time down in New Orleans.”
Burt raised his glass. “To self-made men.”
Hagen was glad to drink to that. “I’m sure I’ve occupied far too much of your time, gentlemen. Move around a bit. Make some friends and not just of the feminine persuasion. I think you’ll find it rewarding.”
Wayne said, “We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t think we could get something out of it.”
Hagen bid them goodbye and began to move around the room. He caught the eye of Rube Miller, the man he had hired on to keep an eye on his gaming floor and beckoned him to follow him to a quieter corner of the suite.
Miller had made the unfortunate choice to comb forward what little hair he had left into something of a pomade. He sported a waxed moustache that curled at the ends and preferred to wear coats with obscenely wide lapels.
But what Miller may have lacked in sartorial elegance, he more than made up for in his supervision of the gaming floor. Like Hagen, he was an old card sharp who had worked the riverboat circuit for years. He could spot a cheat from halfway across the room.
“Fine party, Mr. Hagen,” Miller said when he joined him. “I’m sure you must be pleased.”
“Concerned is more like it.” He kept his back to the Carter boys. “What do you make of those two characters standing over by the safe?”
Miller casually glanced around the suite. “They say they’re the Carter boys out of the Bar C. They say it’s a small outfit north from here.”
“I know, but I sense there’s something more Cajun than cattlemen about them. They told me as much just now. Wayne covers his accent better than his brother, but Burt has the Delta written all over him.”
“I caught that, too.” Miller raised an eyebrow. “Guess that’s why he always kept quiet the few times I’ve spoken to them.”
“Are they staying in the hotel?”
Miller nodded. “I helped them check in the day before yesterday. They brought their four brothers with them, but they came later, and I haven’t seen them since. They’ve got a line of connecting suites on the fourth floor. I’m surprised the others aren’t here.”
Hagen was more troubled than surprised. “Have some of our boys keep an eye on them. And get some of our belles to pay them particular attention. I don’t want them followed but keep track of where they go and what they do while they’re here. They were a little too interested in my safe for my liking.”
“And send a wire down to our people in New Orleans. See if they know of any Carter boys. I’ll be shocked if they do. Include a description of Wayne. Something tells me ‘Carter’ isn’t their real last name.”
Miller set his glass on a table. “I’ll do it right now.”
After his pit boss left, Hagen began to check on his guests and noticed the Carter boys were nowhere in sight. An interesting turn of events, especially for a couple of cattlemen looking to get their start in the enterprise.
Night had already fallen on Woodbine as Trammel, Blake, and Constable Peyton reached the Finney spread. It was a clear evening, and the moon hung high overhead. A lone horse in the corral lifted its head as it caught their scent, but quickly went back to nosing the dirt at its hooves.
The three lawmen climbed down from their horses and tethered the animals to the branches of a tree.
Merle Peyton squinted at the log cabin in the distance. “I can see lights from inside. I sure hope that’s a good sign the family’s still alive.”
Trammel pulled his rifle from the saddle scabbard and Blake did the same.
Trammel asked Peyton, “You ever go inside the house?”
“Plenty of times,” the constable told him. “There’s two ways in. The front door and a side door to the left. Mary uses that to hang wash and tend to a small garden she has out back. Both doors have thick beams that keep them locked, but I don’t know if they’ve used them now.”
Trammel had to think that Ben Washington had probably slid them in place as soon as he moved the family inside. He would not want to risk one of his captives making a break for it.
Since Blake had been quiet since their brief argument in his office, Trammel decided to ask his deputy, “How do you think we should do this?”
He was not surprised that Blake already had an idea. “One of us hits the front door while the other hits the side. We leave Merle out here to keep an eye on things and call out if Washington gets past us.”
Peyton took down his double-barreled shotgun from his saddle. “It’ll be that outlaw who calls out if he steps one foot outside. I’ll give him a belly full of lead for his trouble.”
Trammel was glad to see some fight had returned to the old constable. “We’ll creep up together nice and slow. Merle, you’ll crouch behind the corral there and stand watch. Blake, you take the side door while I take the front. When you’re ready, give a low whistle, and we’ll try both doors at the same time. We’ll do it easy at first, so we don’t make any noise before we go in. If your door is barred, come back front to me. We’ll see if we can get a shot at him through one of the windows.”
Blake levered a round into the chamber of his Winchester. “Got it.”
Trammel was not through. “Washington’s liable to grab the woman once we bust in there, so don’t rush the shot. Aim careful and only shoot if you think you can take him. I’ll do the same.”
The three men spread out along the path as they silently made their way toward the rough-hewn cabin. Trammel kept his eyes moving constantly in the darkness. The horse in the corral trotted to the far side of the enclosure as they approached but did not make a sound.
Peyton remained behind Trammel as Blake broke off from the group toward the side door of the cabin.
Then, a dog began to bark from somewhere behind the house.
Trammel stopped moving and whispered back at Peyton. “You didn’t tell me they had a dog.”
“That’s because I didn’t know they did,” Peyton whispered back. “Washington must’ve put it outside to keep from getting bit.”
Trammel cursed under his breath as he began to move quicker toward the cabin. When he got to the edge of the corral, he gestured for Peyton to remain there while he continued on in a crouch. He kept his eyes on the windows and saw someone pass in front of the light, casting a shadow on the glass.
From i. . .
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