Johnstone Country. Where every day is a good day to die.
Duff MacCallister left Scotland to forge a new life in America, raising cattle on the western plains of the growing nation. But keeping his dream alive means facing off against the country's most violent, bloodthirsty men . . .
The Spencer family is part of a wagon train passing through Chugwater, Wyoming, bound for the valley of Longshot Basin. Unfortunately, the trail that leads there has been buried under an avalanche. The only route the homesteaders can take is the infamous Nightmare Trail—a treacherous, terrifyingly steep, and narrow mountainside path that has claimed many lives.
If that wasn't dangerous enough, the trail is also a killing ground for the outlaw Hardcastle gang. The disreputable Arkansas Ozark clan don't take kindly to anyone trespassing on their road without paying—in blood.
Duff MacCallister is not about to let the Spencers ride the Nightmare Trail without his guidance. He knows the terrain. He knows how to defend himself. And he knows that when it comes to bad men like the Hardcastles, the best defense is killing first—and fast.
Release date: September 27, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 304
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Riding the Nightmare
William W. Johnstone
The excited shout made everyone in Fiddler’s Green turn their head toward the entrance, where a man had just slapped the batwings aside and rushed into the saloon.
“What the devil is that rannihan going on about?” asked Biff Johnson, the former cavalryman who owned Fiddler’s Green. Biff had named the place after an old cavalry legend that said every man who had answered the call of “Boots and Saddles” would journey after death to an idyllic meadow with a tree-lined creek on one side, where he would be able to sit in the shade and visit with all his former comrades. Biff had made his Fiddler’s Green into something of an idyllic spot, itself, seeing as it was the finest saloon in the town of Chugwater, Wyoming.
“Why dinnae ye ask him what he’s on about?” suggested Duff MacCallister, who was sitting at a table with Biff, Elmer Gleason, and Wang Chow. The latter two worked for Duff on his vast ranch, Sky Meadow, at least technically speaking. In reality, Elmer and Wang were more like members of the family.
Biff nodded. “I’ll do that.” He pushed to his feet and started toward the agitated newcomer. Several men had gathered around to ask him questions.
Biff’s powerful voice cut through the hubbub. “Pinky Jenkins, what do you mean by bursting in here and yelling like that? Can’t folks enjoy a peaceful drink in the middle of the day without having their ears assaulted by your caterwauling?”
Jenkins stared wide-eyed at him. “But Biff, there’s hell in Thunder Canyon!”
“Yes, you said that. But what are you talking about?”
That raised even more of a ruckus in the saloon. Duff stood up, went over to join Biff, and asked, “Was anyone hurt in this rockslide, d’ ye ken?”
Jenkins turned his bug-eyed expression toward Duff. “It was more ’n a rockslide, Mr. MacCallister. The whole derned mountainside came down on the canyon! Closed it up, clear from one side to the other!”
“How do you know that?” asked Biff.
“I seen it with my own eyes!”
Biff grunted. “Then you can give us more details, or at least you should be able to.”
“I reckon I can,” Jenkins said. His tongue came out and swiped across his lips. “But the ride into town sure made me dry, Biff. I could prob’ly talk a whole heap better if my speakin’ apparatus was lubricated some.”
Biff glared, but it was all Duff could do not to laugh. Pinky was a decent wrangler and ranch hand, when he rattled his hocks long enough to actually work any. He had an inordinate fondness for Who-Hit-John, too, which meant that he had worked for most of the spreads around Chugwater at one time or another, sticking for a spell before he got drunk and did something to get himself fired. He was a colorful but amiable local character. Duff wasn’t surprised Pinky would try to cadge a drink or two before he spilled whatever news he happened to have.
“Come on over to the bar,” Duff told him. “’Tis happy I’ll be to buy you a drink.”
“I’m much obliged to you, Mr. MacCallister.”
Duff put a hand on Jenkins’ shoulder and steered him over to the hardwood. He nodded for the bartender to pour a drink. As the men pressed around him, Jenkins picked up the glass, threw back the whiskey, and licked his lips again.
“That helped a mite,” he said, “but—”
“Tell the story first,” Duff interrupted in a firm voice. “Perhaps then ’twill be time for another drink.”
Jenkins nodded. “Yeah, sure, I reckon that makes sense. I was ridin’ close to Thunder Canyon, thinkin’ I might mosey up to Longshot Basin and take a look around. But thank goodness I wasn’t in any hurry, because if I’d been in the canyon when that avalanche came down, I’d be dead now, sure as hell! I’d be on the bottom of thousands and thousands o’ tons of rock.”
Longshot Basin was an isolated valley some twenty miles northwest of Chugwater, Duff recalled. Although it was a large stretch of range with decent but not outstanding graze, no ranches were located there. The land was still open to be claimed because the basin was surrounded by sheer cliffs and there was only one way in or out: the trail through Thunder Canyon, a narrow slash in the rugged landscape.
Now, according to Pinky Jenkins, that trail was closed, meaning Longshot Basin was cut off completely from the rest of the world.
Elmer and Wang had joined the crowd gathered around Jenkins.
Elmer asked, “What started the avalanche? Rocks don’t usually go to slidin’ for no reason.”
“That is not necessarily correct,” said Wang. “A stone can be in perilous equilibrium and on the verge of falling for a lengthy period of time before it finally does so under the impetus of some force too miniscule for human senses to perceive.”
Elmer squinted at him. “If you’re sayin’ what I think you’re sayin’, there still has to be somethin’ that starts the ball rollin’ . . . or the rock, in this case . . . even if it’s too puny for us to feel it.”
“Oh, I felt it, all right,” Jenkins declared. “It was an earthquake, boys! Are you tellin’ me you didn’t feel it here in town?”
“I didn’t feel any earthquake,” Biff insisted. “In fact, I’m starting to wonder if maybe you were drunk and imagined the whole thing, Pinky.”
“No, sir!” Jenkins looked and sounded offended at the very idea. “I was sober as a judge. More sober than some judges I’ve seen. Until the one Mr. MacCallister just bought me, I hadn’t had a drink in three days.” He looked a little shame-faced as he added, “Couldn’t afford one. I’m stone-cold broke. That’s the reason I was headin’ up to Longshot Basin. I thought I might comb through those breaks and maybe turn up a few strays I could drive back to their home ranches. Figured I might get me a little, what do you call it, finder’s fee that way.”
What Jenkins said made sense. Even though no ranches—not even any little greasy-sack outfits—were located in the basin, from time to time a few cows wandered up through Thunder Canyon and got lost in the rugged breaks that filled the basin. Rumor had it a sizable number of wild critters lived there, descendants of stock that had gone in but never came back out.
“I still don’t think there was any earthquake,” said Biff, shaking his head. “They have them up in the northwest part of the state, around what they’ve started calling Yellowstone Park, but there aren’t any around here.”
“Dinnae be so fast to think that, Biff,” spoke up Duff. “Now that Pinky mentions it, earlier this morning when we were loading supplies onto the wagon, I thought I felt the earth shiver just a wee bit under me boots.” Duff’s broad shoulders rose and fell in a shrug. “I said nothing about it because I was nae sure I felt it or not.”
“You did,” declared Wang. “I felt the same faint motion of the earth.”
Elmer frowned at them. “Well, I sure didn’t. How come you never mentioned it, Wang?”
“It seemed of little importance at the time. Simply an inconsequential geological . . . hiccup.”
“Not so inconsequential, to hear Pinky tell it,” Duff said. “An avalanche big enough to close off Thunder Canyon is pretty major.”
One of the townsmen said, “Aw, nobody lives up there. What does it matter whether anybody can get in or out of Longshot Basin? Nobody gives a damn about that place.”
Duff shrugged again. “Perhaps not. Go on with your story, Pinky.”
Jenkins licked his lips again, but when Duff didn’t offer him another drink and neither did anyone else, he continued. “The ground shook and scared the bejabbers outta me, and then I heard this big ol’ roar. Thunder Canyon sure lived up to its name! It was like the biggest, loudest peal of thunder anybody ever heard. When I glanced up at Buzzard’s Roost, it looked like half the mountain was comin’ down. I never seen anything quite as . . . as awe-inspirin’ as all that rock tumblin’ down into the canyon and throwin’ up a cloud of dust higher than I could even see! I tell you what, the ground shook some more when all that rock landed in the canyon. It sure as blazes did! And then . . .”
Jenkins’ voice trailed off as he licked his lips again.
Elmer exclaimed, “Oh, hell, give him another shot o’ whiskey!” He dug a coin out of his pocket and tossed it on the bar. “I’ll pay for it this time.” He waited until Jenkins had downed the whiskey, then growled, “Now get on with the story.”
“Sure, Elmer. Don’t rush me. As I was sayin’, that avalanche made a terrible racket and kicked up the biggest cloud of dust you’d ever hope to lay eyes on, and the whole thing spooked my horse so bad, it was all I could do to keep it from runnin’ away with me. But I was far enough off that I knew I was safe, and I wanted to see what things looked like when the dust cleared.
“Well, sir, what I saw was a wall of rock a good twenty feet high, stretchin’ all the way from one side of the canyon to the other! Ain’t no tellin’ how far up the canyon it runs, neither. But it plugged that canyon up just like a cork in the neck of a bottle, ain’t no doubt about that!”
Duff, in his explorations of the countryside after he had come to Wyoming and started his ranch, had ridden through Thunder Canyon and into Longshot Basin a couple of times. He recalled that the canyon was approximately forty yards wide. It would take an enormous amount of rock to close off the passage, but from the way Pinky Jenkins described the avalanche, he supposed it was possible.
“Anyway,” Jenkins went on, “once I’d seen what had happened, I lit a shuck for town. Figured folks here would want to know about it.”
“And you figured the story was worth a few drinks,” said Biff. He shook his head and chuckled. “I suppose you were right about that.”
“I’d just as soon never see anything like that again,” Jenkins intoned solemnly. “For a minute there, it was like the world was comin’ to an end.” He closed his eyes and shuddered. When he opened them again, he continued. “And witnessin’ somethin’ like that . . . it sure does leave a man with a powerful thirst!”
Pinky Jenkins continued repeating the story as long as the men standing at the bar with him kept buying drinks. Duff, Elmer, and Wang went back to the table where they had been sitting with Biff when Jenkins came bursting in to Fiddler’s Green. Biff remained at the bar, keeping an eye on Jenkins.
Duff and his two companions had come to Chugwater earlier in the day to stock up on supplies. Their loaded wagon was parked down the street in front of the general store, ready to be driven back to the ranch. Because most folks around there knew the vehicle belonged to Duff, it was unlikely anybody would bother the wagon or the goods in the back of it.
And Duff MacCallister, for all of his mild, pleasant demeanor, was not a man anyone who knew him set out to get crossways with.
Tragic circumstances in his Scottish homeland had prompted him to immigrate to America. After spending some time in New York, he had headed west, eventually winding up in Chugwater and buying a ranch not far from the town. He had named the spread Sky Meadow, after Skye McGregor, the beautiful young woman he had loved and planned to marry, before she met her death at the brutal hands of Duff’s enemies. Duff had avenged that murder, but vengeance didn’t return Skye to him, so he had put that part of his life behind him and established a new life on the American frontier.
A tall, brawny, powerful man with a shock of tawny hair, Duff was a formidable opponent in any hand-to-hand battle, whether with fists or knives. He was a crack shot with pistol or rifle. But the quality that really made him deadly was an icy-nerved calmness in the face of danger. He never panicked, never lost his head and acted rashly. And if forced into a fight, he never quit until his opponent was vanquished, one way or another.
Because of all that, Duff had a reputation as a man not to tangle with. But he was also known as the staunchest, most loyal friend anyone could ever have. In times of trouble, he never turned his back on someone who needed his help.
As it turned out, after leaving Scotland under those heartbreaking circumstances, he had made quite a success of his new life in America. The newly acquired ranch had a gold mine on it, a mine no one had known about except Elmer Gleason, the colorful old-timer who had been hiding in the mine and working it in secret when Duff bought the place. Duff had befriended Elmer, and even though legally the mine belonged to him since it was on his range, he had made Elmer an equal partner in it. Elmer also worked for him as the foreman of his crew of ranch hands.
That crew had grown as Duff expanded the operation into raising Black Angus cattle, the first stockman in the area to do so. The effort had been successful and quite lucrative. Duff shipped Black Angus not only back east to market but also to other ranchers who wanted to try raising them.
The other man sitting with Duff in Fiddler’s Green was Wang Chow, a former Shaolin priest in China who had been forced to flee his homeland, much like Duff. In Wang’s case, the Chinese emperor had put a bounty on his head after he killed the men responsible for murdering his family. Duff had “rescued” him from a potential lynching, although it was likely that Wang, with his almost supernatural martial arts skills, could have fought his way free from the would-be lynchers. Just as in Elmer’s case, that encounter had led to a fast friendship with Duff. They were a nigh-inseparable trio.
When they had finished their beers, they left Fiddler’s Green, with Duff giving Biff a casual wave as they headed out. Biff just nodded, looked at the crowd still surrounding Pinky Jenkins, and sighed.
“Biff’s a mite aggravated,” commented Elmer, who had noticed the same thing.
“Aye, but as long as those fellows are buying drinks, I think he has little to complain about,” Duff said. “Still on the same subject, I thought I might take a ride up to Thunder Canyon so I can have a look at this natural disaster with me own eyes.” He had ridden his horse Sky into Chugwater today, so there was no reason he had to return to the ranch with Elmer and Wang.
“You reckon it’s as bad as ol’ Pinky made out it is?” asked Elmer.
“I dinnae ken. That’s why I wish to have a look for meself.”
“Thunder Canyon and Longshot Basin are a considerable distance from Sky Meadow,” Wang pointed out. “Even if Mr. Jenkins’ claims are correct, they have no bearing on our lives.”
“Nae, ’tis true they do not,” agreed Duff. “Just mark it up to curiosity.”
“Sure, I don’t blame you for that,” Elmer said. “We’ll see you later, Duff.”
As Elmer and Wang climbed onto the wagon seat, Duff untied the team from the hitch rack in front of the store. Skillfully, Elmer took up the reins, turned the team and the wagon, and headed for home.
Duff was about to untie his horse so he could swing up into the saddle, when a voice said from behind him, “Not so fast there, Duff MacCallister.”
Duff turned his head and looked over his shoulder. A very pretty young woman with blond hair tumbling around her head and shoulders stood on the boardwalk and regarded him with a stern expression on her face.
Duff saw the good humor lurking in her blue eyes, though, so he wasn’t surprised when a smile suddenly appeared on her lips.
“Did you really think you could come into Chugwater and then leave again without even saying hello to me?” she asked. The smile took any sting out of the question, which could have been taken as a reprimand.
“Sure, and I planned on stopping at the dress shop on me way out of town,” Duff told her.
“Well, we’ll never know, will we,” said Meagan Parker, “since I spotted your wagon earlier and knew you were in town.”
“Been keeping an eye out for me, have ye?”
She laughed. “Don’t get a swelled head. Yes, I looked out the shop’s front window every now and then to see if the wagon was still here, but I had other things to do, too, you know. My world wouldn’t have come to an end if I’d missed a chance to see the great Duff MacCallister.”
“But ye are glad to see me?”
“Of course, I am,” she said, her voice softening. “You know that.”
“Aye, ’n ’tis pleased I am to lay eyes on ye, too. Were we not in the middle of town, in broad daylight, I might lay a kiss on ye, as well.”
Meagan sighed dramatically. “I suppose we should maintain some sort of decorum.”
“I suppose,” Duff said, “but ’tis not easy.”
The romance between Duff and Meagan had begun pretty much at first sight, even though that moment had been in the middle of a gunfight and Meagan had been warning him of some lurking killers about to open fire on him. Since then, they had gotten to know each other very well, developing a relationship built on passion, trust, and genuine affection.
Meagan operated a successful dress shop in Chugwater, sewing dresses of such beauty and elegance that ladies from all over the territory hired her to add to their wardrobes.
She was also a partner in Duff’s ranch, Sky Meadow, having loaned him some money when he was in financial straits. He could have paid back the amount many times over since then, but Meagan preferred to leave things the way they were, with her having a percentage interest in the herd of Black Angus.
Duff suspected that was because the arrangement gave her an excuse to visit the ranch from time to time, and also to accompany him when he delivered stock elsewhere. She was a partner, after all, so why not go along on those trips?
Most folks who knew them figured they would get married someday, but for now, they were both happy with the way things were and saw no reason to change the easy-going relationship.
An idea occurred to Duff. “Did ye finish those other things ye were working on at your shop?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“Then ye have no pressing business at the moment?”
Meagan shook her head. “No, I suppose not. I mean, there are always things that need to be done . . .”
“I’m taking a ride up to Thunder Canyon. Why dinnae ye come with me?”
“Thunder Canyon?” Meagan repeated. “Why are you going all the way up there?”
“Dinnae ye hear the commotion earlier when Pinky Jenkins came riding into town?”
“No, I didn’t. Pinky Jenkins is a pretty disreputable character, isn’t he?”
“He’s known to be, at times,” admitted Duff. “But he brought a very interesting tale with him today.” He filled her in on the story Jenkins had told about the avalanche closing off Thunder Canyon.
“My goodness, it sounds like quite a catastrophe,” Meagan said. “Do you think he was telling the truth?”
“He seemed mighty sincere, and he insisted he was nae drunk when it happened.” Duff shrugged. “So I thought I would go and take a look for meself, and now I’m for inviting you to come along.”
“Could we ride up there and be back before nightfall?”
“Oh, I think ’tis likely.”
“Would I have time to pack a little food? I’ve been busy today and didn’t stop for lunch, but I have a loaf of bread and some roast beef I could bring along, as well as a bottle of wine.”
“‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou’,” Duff quoted. “To my way of thinking, Omar Khayyam had it right, but I’ll not pass up a chance to put that old saying to the test!”
Meagan wanted to change into more suitable clothes for riding, so while she was doing that, Duff rode to the livery stable and had the hostler bring out the horse she kept there. Duff saddled the mount himself to make sure everything was the way it should be. Where Meagan’s safety was concerned, he took no chances.
He mounted up and rode to the dress shop, leading her horse. Carrying a small wicker basket with a clean white cloth draped over its contents, she was just coming outside when he got there. Even her denim trousers and a man’s shirt made the clothes look good on her. Her blond hair was tucked up under the brown hat she wore.
They rode for about an hour and then stopped on a grassy, tree-shaded hill to enjoy the simple but delicious picnic lunch Meagan had packed. Duff enjoyed the wine, too, although he preferred coffee, tea, beer, or a good Scotch whiskey, for the most part. But not surprisingly, the company made everything better, as when they stretched out on the grass and lingered in each other’s arms for a while, sharing kisses.
Then they rode on, following a faint trail Duff knew led to Thunder Canyon and beyond that to Longshot Basin.
Buzzard’s Roost, the mountain that reared its ugly peak just southwest of the canyon, was visible for quite a few miles before they got there. Even though they rode steadily, it didn’t seem as if they got any closer to the mountain. It still loomed ahead of them, tantalizingly out of reach.
To the northeast lay a vast, high tableland bordered by sheer cliffs that formed the other side of the canyon. Those cliffs curved around to merge with the lower slopes of Buzzard’s Roost and completely enclose Longshot Basin. It was an impressive geographical barrier. A man might be able to climb the cliffs in a few spots, but a horse couldn’t, and getting a wagon over them was downright impossible. Duff had never been atop that sprawling mesa and didn’t know anyone who had.
Finally drawing close enough to see they were approaching Buzzard’s Roost and an even more obscure trail veering off to the left, they reined in at that spot to allow the horses to rest for a few minutes.
As they dismounted, Meagan pointed to the path, which would have been easy to overlook, and asked, “Where does that go?”
“I could nae tell ye, lass,” Duff replied with a shake of his head. “I remember it from the last time I rode up this way, but I did nae follow it. From the looks of it, it either leads up onto Buzzard’s Roost or, more likely, peters out somewhere betwixt here ’n there.”
“It must go somewhere,” said Meagan, “or else no one would have come along here to make such a trail.”
“Aye, what ye say is reasonable. I’ll ask Elmer about it. He’ll ken the answer if anyone in these parts does.”
They rode on, their route curving around the base of Buzzard’s Roost until they came in sight of Thunder Canyon.
Or rather, where Thunder Canyon had been. Duff pulled back on Sky’s reins as he saw that the excitable wrangler had been right. The mouth of Thunder Canyon was completely blocked by a jumbled mass of rock—a pile of boulders that ranged in size from a few feet in diameter to huge slabs of stone the size of a house. Meagan came to a stop beside him, and they both sat there, staring at the impassable barrier.
“That’s incredible,” she said in a hushed, awed tone. “I’m not sure how far it goes up the canyon, but it would take weeks to dig through that.”
Duff shook his head. “Ye could nae dig through it. Ye would have to blast a path with dynamite, which might cause even more rockslides. ’Twould be a job requiring months of hard labor. Maybe even years.”
“And what’s on the other side? Just an empty basin?”
“Aye. And you’re looking at the reason why ’tis empty. Everyone in these parts knew that if such a thing ever happened as has occurred today, Longshot Basin would be cut off from the rest of the world.”
A little shiver went through Meagan. “I’m glad I’m not on the other side of that.”
“That goes for me as well, lass.”
“What do you think caused it?”
Duff tilted his head back and stared up at the rugged slopes of Buzzard’s Roost rising above them. He could see the long, fresh scar in the mountainside where hundreds of tons of rock had pulled loose and roared down into the canyon.. . .
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