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 Texas as part of the American West.
FOREVER TEXAS. JOHNSTONE COUNTRY—AND HOW.
The bestselling authors of the American West return to the wildest days of the Lone Star state, when dreams were bigger, passions bolder, and legacies forged with undaunted courage, grit, and maybe some bullets.
The land is theirs. Now they have to tame it. Based on true events.
South Texas, 1854. Regis Royle is determined to turn eighteen-thousand acres of raw prairie into the greatest cattle ranch in the world. But he can’t do it alone. The region is wilder than a herd of mustangs—and crawling with rustlers. Teaming up with the Cattlemen’s Justice Consortium, Regis hopes to stop the rustling and start laying tracks for a new railway. Problem is, the cattlemen—including Jarvis “Bone” McGraw, Regis’s own ranch manager—can’t help but lock horns with the Texas Rangers. And it doesn’t take long for this brewing pot of very bad blood to get a whole lot worse . . .
First blood is spilled in Corpus Christie. Regis’s reckless young brother Shep is wounded by the beautiful daughter of their fiercest enemies, the powerful Valdez family. The news of a possible rail line has divided the ranchers into warring factions. And Regis Royle has to keep the peace with McGraw, take a gamble with his business partner, and keep his wayward brother in one piece. But things really heat up when Regis learns that the Valdez family are claiming rights to the Royle Ranch’s land. And they’ll do anything to get it back. Even kill . . .
The brothers Royle may be newcomers but they’re no greenhorns. They’ve got what it takes to be Texans. And that means never stop fighting for your dream.
Release date: April 25, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 336
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Lone Star Legacy
William W. Johnstone
His wrists were bound tight behind him with another rope that wrapped several times about his lean waist before trailing down his legs, nearly rigid and bound at the ankle. He was bootless and his brown socks, spotted through with holes, wagged and roped off his jerking toes. The man jerked, his body whipsawing rigid, save for a hint of a bend at the knees. With each jerking movement, his plight grew worse.
Joss Keeler was a lean man, always had been. A husband to one woman, a father to four children, a son of a pap and a mama back in Kentucky. He and Edna had pulled up stakes and hauled westward three years before to farm a bone-dry patch of land he’d regretted buying sight unseen from his smarmy cousin Merle. Should have known better, as Merle had always been a lying jackass.
The move, the relentless, blistering, hammering of the sun, the snakes, the lack of water, the rank-tempered, scrubby cattle, all of it had conspired to make Edna a bitter little thing, old looking far before her time, and Joss a curl-backed, beaten man also long before he had earned the look and feel of it.
But he was, by God, a family man and he’d done what he had to do to feed his family. They had already packed the squawk-wheeled work wagon with what of their broken, battered possessions he thought the remaining drudgery critter, a toothless mule name of Melvin, might pull.
They were headed northeastward, and though Edna never said a thing about it, Joss knew she’d not eaten that day, nor maybe the night before. They’d gnawed through the last of their wormy flour and cornmeal, and he’d seen her boil up the remaining dry black beans earlier in the week.
He’d lost the last of his cattle—the rangy, wild cattle dotting the land in these parts—to some sort of haired dog beast, coyote or wolf or Comanche wearing a dog skin he knew not. He’d only seen it from too far to do a thing about it.
Trouble was, Chaw Perkins, Ambrose Dalton, and the biggest cattle hog of them all, Regis Royle, wanted all the land and all the beasts on it, no matter who else might be there, no matter if they were there legally. And those cattlemen rode their hired hands hard to scour clean the land of any small holders thereabouts.
Joss was a hard learner, though, and when several nighttime visits failed to run him and his off, well, here they were. One more day, he thought, and I would have been shed of this place.
But now here he was, kicking and pumping at the end of a rope, as if this least, last effort might somehow save him. Joss’s final thoughts, quickly burning in his brain like paper in fire, were of Edna and the boys and wee Ess, the youngest, at two years of age already so like her mother. They were now to go on in their lives without him.
The thought had never come to him before. He’d instead always pictured being the papa in their lives, the man his wife turned to for help, to bring in firewood, to bring home meat for the table. And that’s what he was doing, taking one last head of rangy cattle, one he was sure was unbranded, therefore unclaimed, therefore attainable by anyone for any purpose at all.
Especially, thought Joss, himself and his family. After all, he owned the land on which he’d seen the beast, eh? Why not drop one last mangy longhorn, skin it out, and take along as much as they could carry and eat, which was likely most of the beast?
After he’d shot the heifer, certain it belonged to none and thus all, he’d set to skinning it out so they’d have meat for the trail. At least something to fill their bellies while they began their long journey of failure and shame back to Kentucky.
But that’s not how it worked out.
Now here I am, thought Joss, dying, and my wife will get the word from a fat-and-happy rancher who made our lives hellish for three years running.
“Least I can do,” said Ambrose.
That was big of him. Joss did near everything he could think of to get away, even tried to run for it, but they shot him in the heel. He bet it was Royle, but he couldn’t be certain.
“I never did take nothing in life that wasn’t mine to take, damn you all!” Then he’d told himself to calm down, that taunting and cursing these fools wasn’t about to get him anywhere. Then he pleaded all the while they jerked him around and roped him like a bellerin’ calf and trussed him whilst he bled from the foot and yowled and thrashed.
Finally, he did the thing he’d always told himself he’d never do to another man in life, the thing he vowed to his Pap he’d never do. Joss begged. Begged like a ganted-up old street creature in a city somewhere with his cupped hands out, too poor even to buy a hat. He begged for his life.
Wasn’t for him, and he believed that. It was for Edna and the young’uns. They did not deserve to trudge through their days thinking their own Pap was a cattle thief. Because he wasn’t.
“That cow didn’t have no brand, damn you!” he’d shouted, but two of the three men kept a cold eye on him, and Royle looked over his head, as if not looking at him kept him from being tainted by their intended crime. He told them as much, too.
Now, jags of hot lightning pain lanced up and down his body, his throat having given over to some feeling far beyond agony. The last of his efforts were reduced to jerking and working his body back and forth, stiff as a plank, as the rope spun him slowly in a circle.
Joss’s mind blackened and puckered about the edges, curling in on itself like a delicate fist of paper. What about Edna and the children? Oh, what about them? Think of them, he told himself, this is all you have left, this last scrap of a moment . . .
Chaw Perkins and Ambrose Dalton stared off beyond the thick trunk of the cottonwood, the first packing a pipe, Ambrose working a quid of chaw, both employing the full intent of a man bent on doing anything at all but what he should.
The third, Regis Royle, worked no chew in his mouth, but did flex his jaw muscles, as if he were chewing something that might never be swallowed, and he did eye the dying man, long after the fellow, all chiseled bone and ratty clothes and callused hands, ceased to live.
Not for the first or the last time did the thought occur to Regis Royle that maybe, just maybe this time he’d been wrong. Maybe this man was telling the truth. A truth deeper than the idea that he hadn’t killed, gutted, and halfway butchered a range cow, one nobody’d laid claim to yet, anyhow. Maybe it had all been a misunderstanding. Maybe, maybe, maybe.... A long, slow sigh leaked out of his mouth.
He noticed Ambrose was riding away from the scene, slow and in no hurry. “Where are you headed, Ambrose?” he said. There was no way he was going to shoulder the fat man’s share of the burden of stringing up a man and dropping him on down again.
“Like I told that fellow. Promised him I’d tell his wife and young.”
“Not without toting home his body, too.”
That got Ambrose to stop. He didn’t turn. But he did move his head to one side and let fly a brown stream of tobacco juice. “Seems to me we’re partners here. Ain’t no call for you to tell me what to do, now is there, Regis?”
“There is if it looks like you forgot the deal, Ambrose.”
“Fine.” The fat rancher turned his horse back to face the dead man and his two comrades. “I’ll help you cut the sumbitch down, then you, by God, can drag his body back to the wife.” He spit again, then resumed his upright post atop the horse.
Ambrose looked from Chaw to Regis Royle, and back again. “What’s got into you two? We agreed this here part of the job was going to be no different for those who have wronged us and sought to bilk us out of our herds. You know as well as I do that’s the way it has to be. Hell, we agreed on that! Elsewise, what are we doing out here, stringing up folks like they was runaway slaves?”
Regis couldn’t help this feeling of disgust rising in his gorge, threatening to choke him from within. He got this way each time after he helped hang a man. Granted, it had only happened three times since he and the other ranchers formed the Cattlemen’s Justice Consortium in a reaction to the increasing numbers of bold-as-brass thievery they’d all experienced of many head from each of their herds.
Even if he was a rustler, it was a raw way to go out, swinging and gagging. The worst was always seeing their heads, swelled up to twice their normal size. The tongues did the same, so much so they burst right out of their mouths, all purple-black like nighttime storm clouds, like something not of the body had been stuffed in there, but didn’t quite fit. They looked like they’d been caught choking down a cow’s tongue.
Sometimes their lips split. And the eyes, lord, but the eyes bulged, popped forward like a frog’s will do if you squeeze it to death from the legs up. Sometimes a man’s eyes would pop right out and trail down a swollen cheek.
And then the filth—most of the men would mess themselves, all of it, front and back, staining their trousers and leaking down legs, running off the end of grimy bare feet, where their boots had been kicked off in their throes, bucking their last ride, on the grim steed of death.
Regis wondered if it was kinder at the end to just shoot a man. Cover his eyes and shoot him. But he had to keep in mind, had to keep reminding himself, that these men earned their deaths. They’d been caught like willfully rotten boys filching from the cookie jar, no excuses could work, no reasoning would provide excuse enough to steal another man’s property. At least that’s what all the ranchers had agreed on. If they let just one thief go free, the rustling would never end.
When he’d helped form the Cattleman’s Justice Consortium, a fancy name, to be sure, Regis hoped it would one day soon outgrow the need for hanging thieves, and instead the men would sit around a table and hash out the details of how to get their cattle to far-off markets safely and without losing half their weight on the trail.
He’d heard rumor of two, some said even three, rail lines considering expanding their ranges, looking for wider markets and reasons to justify the expense of laying track through days’ worth of open, raw land just to get to some back-of-nowhere settlement. But that was the point, wasn’t it?
The railroad tycoons, just like the ranchers, were looking, likely itching, for the excuse to flex further the elongating fingers of their empires’ grasp. And if that were the case, then Regis, by God, wanted the Cattlemen’s Justice Consortium to be at the forefront of the lobbying efforts to attract them to their far-off corner of Texas.
Regis wanted to ride point on an organization with so many powerful ranchers representing so much beef on the hoof, so much potential money for all involved, that the railroad men had no choice but to take notice.
He was convinced that a great deal of money could be made for all involved, from the cattlemen on up through the railroads to the meat buyers and packing companies in far-off cities such as Chicago, where the end was met by much of the beeves shipped from all over the West.
Yes, the appetite for beef was becoming a most impressive thing, at least back East, so said four different men he’d chin-wagged with. Regis trusted them as reliable sources of information. After all, he’d worked with them for years in his role as half-owner and working partner in a coastal and river shipping firm with his longtime partner, Cormac Delany.
It had long been Regis’s business to sniff out solid founts of information about potential markets, and to discard any that were useless or dried up. Those four were among his most trusted and longest-known.
A fifth, and the most trusted, was Cormac, a man who in many ways had been a father to him for a long time. Their acquaintance had begun on a fall day many years before when Cormac had found Regis stowed away belowdecks, among the rats in ankle-deep bilge water, on his sidewheel paddler.
The fiery Irishman could just as easily have tossed him overboard, but he’d seen something, Regis liked to think it was a look of boldness nested in his dark, untrusting, unbroke-mustang visage.
According to Cormac, who was raised devout Catholic, his sainted mother (“God rest her!”) would never forgive him from beyond the grave if he’d chucked a starvling off his boat. So Cormac had fed him.
Regis remembered with a grin, and red-cheeks, at the rich memory, that he’d wolfed down more food than three men could put away. Then Cormac had set him to work.
And here he was, all these years later, a rancher and a co-owner of a bustling shipping fleet. But it was as a rancher Regis was most keen, most proud, and most busy.
Since riding through the Santa Calina range a couple of years before, and deciding that if it were at all possible to possess that stunning range, he would do so, no, he must do so, the young man’s life had barely been his own, so much had happened. And yet, the memory of that first slow trip on horseback, alone, through the Santa Calina range, flanking the river and seeing tall grasses sway in a light breeze, haunted him and comforted him.
He often smiled at the memory. It had been an awkward ride, since he hadn’t, to that time, had occasion to sit a horse for more than an hour at most in his life, being more accustomed to life on the water. But all that had soon changed when he and Cormac bought the Santa Calina range and, with the help of his good friend, the Texas Ranger Jarvis “Bone” McGraw, and his reluctant, sometimes difficult, sometimes refreshing, nearly always annoying little brother, Shepley, Regis had set about hiring men and building a ranch.
Now, roughly fifty hired men, some with their families, the Royle Ranch had grown to include two hand-dug reservoirs for watering cattle, a solid, if small, ranch house for him and Shep, a big bunk house that was already filled, a sizable dining hall and camp kitchen, corrals, two barns, a relocated village of Mexican workers who Regis convinced to move to the Royle range once he’d bought their entire town’s worth of livestock and he realized they’d have nothing to live on the next year.
And there were roughly more than one thousand head of cattle, surly, wiry, bawling, bucking, downright rowdy Texas Longhorns more comfortable grubbing in the brush and stomping rattlesnakes than being herded and branded.
But that’s what they’d been doing, rounding up all the feral beeves they could on their range. They were there for the taking, after all. They’d done the same with the vast herds of mustangs, whose magnificent yet brute savagery made the Longhorns look like tame rabbits.
Though to Regis, the most important of all of his ranch undertakings had been and continued to be the acquisition no matter the costs, of more land. He had sworn early on that the only way he was going to devote his entire life to ranching was to be the best at it.
And the only way he knew for certain how to do that was to be the biggest rancher the world had ever seen. And the sure-fire way to be that man was to buy land. Lots of it. As cheap as possible, but he’d pay more if he had to. Anything for land. That abiding thought had guided Regis since the very beginning. Land was all.
By the time the man had ceased to be a living man and swung slowly on an unfelt breeze, Regis Royle had sifted and sorted through the same various concerns about the people he was helping to round up and teach lessons to. When he’d first approached Ambrose Dalton, Chaw Perkins, and Dubber Jones, and a few of the other ranchers in the region about ways to deal with the rustler problem, he’d been far more fired up about the task. After all, he’d lost many hundreds of head in the last year to rustlers.
A significant number were lost in the cover of night to filching border wolves, gangs of vaqueros, and gringos with no more pride than a saloon drunkard begging for coins.
The Santa Calina range was too large for Regis and his men to patrol in full in a way to prevent this theft. The other ranchers had the same problem with their respective spreads, but together, by loaning each other men, and by paying lone riders to lurk the ranges, keeping an eye out for depredations, then tracking the thieves, they were able to slowly nibble away at the poaching problem.
They damn sure couldn’t count on the law to help them, and the newly reformed Texas Rangers, back together and in action in part to help ranchers deal with rustlers, were useful but not yet numerous enough to do the job alone. Until then, the ranchers agreed, they would do the job themselves. And that meant doling out justice as they saw fit.
That was the part about which Regis had been uncertain. He didn’t like the idea of giving away his hard-won cattle to thieves, no sir, but neither did he relish killing men for the crime. But the problem had gotten bad enough in recent months that he had said to hell with it and ridden along.
Ambrose, his closest ranching neighbor, had told him it would get easier, that he had to do it otherwise he might as well hand over his ranch, give up on his beloved Santa Calina range. That unthinkable notion was the final straw for Regis Royle.
Regis rode alone to deliver the body of the Consortium’s latest poacher to the man’s family. This was a task he had never shirked when it came time to do so over the past few months, but it was not a job he enjoyed.
That was but one of many ways he and some of the other men differed, particularly Ambrose, who seemed to relish delivering vicious news. The fat rancher would ride in well-heeled and never without at least two of his own men, each armed more than any man needed to be.
But Regis Royle rode alone, and it was never easy, and from what he was seeing up ahead, it would never be as difficult as today. He saw in a clearing ahead, a woman seated on the ground before a listing work wagon hitched behind a droop-ear mule.
There were the children huddled about her, all but the oldest, a boy about twelve years of age. He stood apart, poking about the harness on the mule as if rechecking the buckles and straps that had already been checked. They were waiting for someone, waiting for the man he now escorted back to them.
As soon as he saw the little family clustered about the scantily loaded wagon—two worn, oft-mended chairs, a broken cradle filled with mothy bedding, casks lashed to the sides with rope—Regis suspected they may have made a terrible mistake.
The bitter bile of regret tickled his throat. Had the man been as innocent as his beseeching, rage-fueled protests swore? Had his high-pitched, unbelieving cries that rose in desperation with the look of terror in his eyes, been true? Had his screaming, howling, and thrashing been the actions of an innocent man? Had his final begging, sobbing moments, at the very end of his life, at the very end of his rope, been those of a wronged man?
The woman saw him before any of the children did. She stiffened, feral and alert, her innate sense of protectiveness pulled her arms tight about the three small ones close to her, drawing them closer. Her eyes narrowed as she eyed him.
Regis rode King, his buckskin gelding, and carried the man draped across a pony Ambrose had brought along on this outing, for such a purpose.
They always knew where they were headed, and trusted the word of their lone scouts to pick out the rustlers, with preference given to encampments of thieves, usual among the more brazen gangs, of which there had been many of late.
It seemed that most thieves, once they found a place of bounty, weren’t clever enough to vary their attacks. They went to the same spot, the same river crossings, the same narrow tracks, night after night until they’d exhausted the supply of beeves. Then they’d move on.
They didn’t realize that once the cattlemen got wind of such operations in a certain section, they seeded the area with cattle knowing they were likely to catch the thieves in the act. This strategy had worked with some success for months. On this day they had followed up on a tip by a fellow named Tomas, a new ranch hand of Ambrose, one he swore confidence in.
Now, looking at this woman and her children, and the oldest, looking up from fiddling with the harness, Regis felt the air leave him. Even the mule swung its grayed old head around and looked his way.
Regis slowed King’s pace as they rode forward. He kept his gaze on the woman, kept a hand on the saddlehorn, holding the reins in his fingertips, the other hand, his left, held the reins of the pony carrying the man’s body. He stopped twenty feet from the wagon.
He began to speak, but his voice cracked. He cleared his throat and began again. “Ma’am,” he should have taken off his hat, but he did not have enough hands. “I am Re—”
He saw she’d looked wide around him, and must have seen something she recognized. She stood quickly, knocking down to its backside a small child, four or so years old. The shocked child began to weep as the woman rushed to the pony.
The bairn was still clutched in her left arm, but it was as if she had forgotten the little, squirming thing. He saw it had been nursing at her breast.
She ran right by his right leg and began saying, “No, no, no!” before she reached the dead man. He saw her free hand snatch the dead man’s sweaty, hanging topknot, and lift. She knew, finally, without doubt what she’d suspected, perhaps when Regis had first ridden slowly into view.
The other children, walking singly, approached their mama.
When he’d awakened that morning, Regis did not foresee his day untying itself like this. This is not how it should have gone. Not how any day should be.
“Ma’am . . . might I have a word, without the children?”
“No!” she shouted, then looked up at him, hurt and anger and confusion warring in her watery, red eyes. Strands of long, auburn hair wisped from beneath the loosely tied bonnet. “No, you say it now, you say it here, right now. What’s happened? What’s happened to my Joss?”
He swallowed down more of that bitter, clotting mess in his throat, the cruel tang of wrongfulness and regret. Children, thought Regis, unable to avoid their still-wondering eyes. This had been an impoverished man who needed a job and a free side of beef, not a rope around his neck. God in heaven, what have I done?
As this thought haunted him, he realized this incident was night-and-day different from every one of the hangings of the past few months. To this point, not a one had they been uncertain about. They’d all been caught in the act, and had died for it, as rustlers, some of them mewling and whining, one or two silent and stoic, but most left life cursing and spitting hatred.
They’d been thieving from—what Regis believe himself and his fellow cattlemen to be—honest businessmen whose workers depended on them for everything. The thieves threatened the food in the mouths of the children of those workers.
But this man Joss, he was not like the rest. He had been telling the truth. They were indeed loaded up to leave the territory, having lost their meager holdings on a failed farming venture. Why here? This was no place to make a go as a farmer.
As the woman’s rage and grief battled before him, the business mind of Regis Royle searched for a way to make this right. Somehow he had to do something to set this situation right.
He cursed Ambrose Dalton and Chaw Perkins for not riding along with him. Then as quickly as he thought it, he was relieved they weren’t there. For they were callous, especially Ambrose, who would have tried to shame the woman before her children. The thought made Regis bite down hard, pulsing his cheek muscles.
No, he had to be here alone. There would be nobody here to interfere with him trying to make things right. He had to try.
It wasn’t easy.
The woman was inconsolable, and he could not blame her.
“What did you do? How . . . how?” She looked up at him, more confusion than anger in her eyes. “What did you do to him? What have you done to my Joss? He’s hurt, is all, just hurt . . .”
She hugged the dead man’s face to her bosom, laid her cheeks across the back of his head. “Joss, oh Joss, we’ll get you down from there, get you fixed up. A poultice. I can do that. Jeremy, get my medicinals out of the wagon. Jeremy!”
Regis glanced at the youngsters, at the silently sobbing boy stroking his papa’s head. He’d have to be the man of the clan now. He looked far too young to shoulder such.
In that moment, looking down into her face, Regis made a decision that might dog him for the rest of his days. But in that fragile moment, he felt he had no other choice. He would be weak, weak as water.
He’d do what he could to not admit he was an active participant in the man’s death. He told himself the truth would only make a horrible situation worse by having to subdue the angry woman or her equally rage-filled children. Perhaps he could make her think he had merely been charged with bringing him to her. Even as he let his mind weigh this thought, he hated himself for it. Knew it was a mewling. . .
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