The top dogs of bestselling western action thrillers hit the bullseye once again in the latest in a new series in which a disgraced lawman's quest for vengeance becomes a legendary fight for justice.
HE WHO LIVES BY THE GUN . . .
Shotgun Johnny Greenway thought he'd hit rock bottom when he lost his wife and son, hung up his badge, and hit the bottle. But a pretty young woman gave him a second chance. Offered him a job riding shotgun for the Reverend's Temptation Gold Mine. Gave him a reason to live. But even she can't save him when the Starrett gang tries to rob the gold—and Johnny kills their leader . . .
. . . DIES BY THE GUN
When the dust clears, Shotgun Johnny is wanted for murder. The dead man's father has powerful friends, including a town marshal who's Johnny's personal enemy. One wants the gold. The other wants the girl. Both want Johnny dead. With a $1000 bounty on his head—and half the county trying to kill him—Johnny's got to prove his innocence. Not in a court of law. In a trial by shotgun . . .
Release date: October 24, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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Shadow of a Dead Man
William W. Johnstone
The blue whistler was followed by the hiccupping report of a Winchester rifle followed in turn by a man shouting, “There he is!”
Johnny leaped down the steep forested slope. He dove forward as two more bullets plumed dirt and pine needles around him, these shots coming from the slope on his right.
He rolled up off his left shoulder, smoothly gaining his feet.
A large granite boulder with a V-shaped crack in it stood between him and the two men running up the slope toward him. He unsheathed both of his sawed-off, ten-gauge, double-barreled shotguns, which he wore in custom-made holsters on each hip, thonged on his thighs. Taking each savage popper in each gloved hand—he lovingly called the matched pair of handsome, walnut-stocked, Damascus-steeled death-dealers “the Twins”—he rocked the heavy rabbit-ear hammers back with his thumbs and stepped into the crack.
He grinned savagely as he extended the left-hand shotgun through the opening. The men running toward him, within fifteen feet and closing fast, breathing hard, dusters whipping around their legs, stopped suddenly. Their lower jaws dropped to their chests when they recognized their own annihilations in the ten-gauge’s round, side-by-side maws, as black as death and as deadly as a lightning bolt.
Johnny squeezed the shotgun’s left trigger.
The man on the left screamed and threw his rifle straight up in the air as the pumpkin-sized blast of ten-gauge buckshot picked him up and threw him down the slope as though into the jaws of hell itself.
The objection of the second man hadn’t entirely left his lips before the cannonlike blast of the Twin’s second barrel picked him up while blowing a big bloody hole through his middle and sent him hurling down the slope with his pard, his cream, bullet-crowned Stetson with a snakeskin band dancing along the ground beside him.
Two more bullets came whistling in from Johnny’s right, one bullet nipping the brim of his black slouch hat, the other hammering the face of the boulder before him and setting up a ringing in his ears. Johnny turned to see two men running toward him across the shoulder of the slope, black suit coats buffeting in the wind.
Both men jacked fresh cartridges into their Winchesters’ actions at the same time.
Johnny moved quickly to the far end of the boulder, away from the approaching ambushers. He edged along the rock, heading downslope, then turned right to move around behind the boulder, putting it between him and his pursuers. He heard the two men’s running footsteps on the boulder’s far side, and the anxious rasping of their breaths.
“Where’d he go?” one asked the other, keeping his voice low but not so low Johnny couldn’t hear it.
Johnny moved quietly toward the V-shaped crack in the middle of the rock.
“I don’t know,” said the second man. “I think he headed downslope.”
“No, he didn’t.” Johnny angled his second Twin through the V-shaped crack and grinned. “He’s right here.”
Both men, standing a few yards upslope from him and slightly to his right, whipped around in surprise, one cursing and raising his rifle. The curse hadn’t entirely left his lips and he hadn’t entirely gotten the rifle aimed at Johnny before Johnny’s right-hand Twin spoke the language of death.
It spoke it again, a second time.
The thundering echoes of the double blasts were still vaulting around the canyon as both men lay in shredded, bloody piles against the incline, shivering out their last breaths, their blood-splattered rifles flung out on the ground around them.
“There he is! There’s that Basque devil!”
The voice had come from up the forested slope, maybe fifty yards beyond the dead men. Johnny looked up that way to see two horseback riders moving toward him, weaving through the pines and fir trees. They had to hold their horses to lurching trots on account of the trees and deadfall debris around them, but they’d seen him and they were making their way toward him, one just then raising a carbine and firing.
The bullet smashed against the cracked boulder, to Johnny’s right, kicking up a fresh ringing in his ears.
Johnny stepped behind the boulder and, keeping the large rock between him and the men moving down the slope toward him, ran down the declivity toward a creek meandering along the bottom of it. While he ran, he quickly broke open his left-hand Twin, thumbed out the spent wads, and replaced them with fresh ones from his cartridge belt. He snapped the savage popper closed, returned it to its holster on his left thigh, and gave the same treatment to the right-hand gun.
He’d no sooner clicked the second shotgun closed than hoof thuds rose sharply behind him. He turned to see the two riders swinging around opposite sides of the cracked boulder. One flung a pointing arm toward Johnny running down the slope through the pines, and shouted, “There he is! Kill that son of the devil, dammit!”
He triggered a shot that went screeching over Johnny’s head to splash into the creek beyond him.
Johnny leaped two deadfalls and wove around a large spruce as the riders thundered toward him, their horses rasping and wheezing, the hooves clattering and crackling on the debris-littered slope. Neither took much care for himself or his horse, so determined were they to snuff the wick of Shotgun Johnny.
They came roaring down the slope, horses leaping shrubs and deadfall, zigzagging crazily around the tall columnar pines. One man, the younger of the two, was sort of groaning and yowling with his fear of the treacherous ride. The older man, whom Johnny had recognized as Trench Norman, a former saloonkeeper who’d taken to the owlhoot trail when he’d been run out of business in Hallelujah Junction by a more moneyed competitor, was cursing a blue streak and whipping his horse savagely with his rein ends.
They were still roughly fifty yards behind Johnny, who broke out of the trees now and dashed across the clearing to the deeply cut creek bed. He leaped into the cut, landing on relatively dry ground beside the water, then hurled himself forward to sit back against the bank.
He drew both Twins and raked all four hammers back with his buckskin-gloved thumbs.
Beyond the clearing he heard his two pursuers thudding and crashing through the forest. There was a great crunching and cursing din as Trench Norman must have run into a snag. The man’s horse whinnied shrilly, above Norman’s curses. Then the thuds of another horse rose sharply as the other, younger man tore out of the forest.
Johnny swiped his hat off his head and edged a look over the lip of the bank as the younger man, wearing a battered cream hat and dirty rat-hair coat, reined his tired, wide-eyed horse to a halt between the trees and the creek bed. He was tall and lean, with a goat-ugly face complete with a fringe of colorless whiskers drooping off his pointed chin. A wad of chaw bulged one cheek.
He looked around wildly, waving his cocked six-shooter out in front of him.
“Hello, Frank,” Johnny said, raising his left Twin above the lip of the bank.
Frank Tenor’s eyes found Johnny and snapped even wider when they found the double-barreled Twin bearing down on him. He yelled and jerked his Colt toward Johnny but fired the piece into the air as the fist-sized spread of double-aught buck cut through his chest and belly and threw him howling off his sorrel’s right hip.
Hooves crashed in the forest to the right of where Tenor was still rolling in the brush, his screaming horse lunging forward and leaping into the creek bed to Johnny’s left. Johnny drew his head and shotgun down when he saw Norman explode out of the forest, firing his Winchester carbine one-handed, cursing loudly.
“Die, you greasy, damn, sheep-diddlin’ Basque!”
The man appeared on Johnny’s left as Johnny put his back to the bank. Horse and rider flew straight off the lip of the bank, an arcing blur of man and mount angling out over the narrow stream. Norman’s carbine stabbed orange flames as he triggered the rifle straight out from his right shoulder a half second before his pinto’s front hooves splashed into the creek.
Johnny snaked his right-hand Twin across his body and tripped both triggers, sending two pumpkin-sized blasts of the double-aught steel punching through Norman’s upper torso and throwing him sideways off his horse. The pinto’s saddle was empty when the mount lunged off its rear hooves, screaming shrilly, and leaped up and out of the stream and onto the opposite bank, its saddle hanging down its far side.
Johnny leaned forward from the bank and raised his left-hand Twin, tightening his trigger finger. He forestalled the motion.
The twin barrels of buckshot had taken decisive care of Trench Norman, whose hatless body just then bobbed back to the creek’s surface, the water around the man bright red and glistening in the early-morning sunshine.
“No name-callin’ now, Trench. Ain’t one bit nice.”
Johnny leaned back against the bank to reload the Twins.
As he did, he listened for the approach of more attackers.
If there were more, he didn’t hear them. He thought he’d seen one other rider behind Norman and Tenor, but maybe that man had seen what the others had gotten for their attempt at stealing the gold bullion Johnny was hauling down from the Reverend’s Temptation Gold Mine at the base of Grizzly Ridge, and had decided that even twenty-six thousand dollars’ worth of freshly smelted, high-grade gold wasn’t worth a fatal case of buckshot poisoning care of the former deputy U.S. marshal and now bullion guard, Johnny Greenway, aka “Shotgun Johnny.”
Johnny snapped the second Twin closed and lifted his head sharply. He narrowed his dark brown, raptorial eyes to each side of his long, hawklike nose as his concentration intensified. His thick, dark brown hair curled down over his ears to touch the long, bright red kerchief he wore sashlike around his neck, the ends of which trailed down his broad chest toward his flat belly.
The rataplan of galloping hooves sounded in the far distance, from up the ridge on his right. Johnny caressed the Twin’s triggers with his gloved thumb, and his heartbeat quickened with anticipation.
“One more . . .” he said half to himself.
He shuttled his gaze to the heavily forested ridge down which he knew a switchbacking trail dropped. It was off this trail he’d camped last night. It was while he still lay in his blankets early this morning, not in his camp but nearby—only a fool slept near his cook fire in outlaw country—that his camp was attacked by one party of the many countless gold thieves that haunted this northern neck of the Sierra Nevadas.
“One more coming fast . . . heading this way . . .”
Johnny peered up the creek’s opposite bank and into the forest beyond.
The trail dropping down the ridge to his right angled along the slope ahead of him, roughly following the line of the creek, before climbing another steep pass on his left. A shrewd smile quirking his mouth corners, he pushed himself off the bank, rose to his feet, splashed across the creek, then ran up the bank and into the forest.
He ran hard, holding his shotguns down snug in their holsters. He’d been raised in these mountains and moved in them as easily as any native creature. Swift as a black-tailed deer, he climbed the ridge, hearing the galloping rider closing on him, on his right, following the gentle curve of the creek as it followed the crease between steep mountain passes.
Johnny’s breath rasped in and out of his lungs, and his mule-eared boots crunched pinecones and needles topping the thick, aromatic forest duff. As he followed a zigzagging course around pines and aspens, he saw the trail ahead of him, straight up the steep slope, sixty yards away. Through the trees on his right, he glimpsed the galloping rider, who’d descended the northern ridge now and was racing along the flat.
Soon he’d be directly above Johnny.
Johnny grimaced as he pushed himself harder, breathing harder, wincing against the pull in his long legs . . .
The trail was ten feet away.
Five . . .
The rider was a sun-dappled figure galloping toward him on his right, twenty feet away.
Johnny leaped onto the trail, drawing both his stubby cannons from their holsters and raking all four hammers back as he aimed straight out in front of him. The rider came around a bend and, seeing Johnny before him, gave a startled cry and leaned far back in his saddle, reining his horse to a skidding halt.
He was trailing a pack mule, and the mule stopped abruptly, as well, braying up an indignant storm.
It was especially hard for the beast to stop, with all the gold it was packing. At least, the thief thought the mule was packing gold.
Gold that belonged to the lovely Sheila Bonner, owner of the Hallelujah Bank & Trust . . .
Johnny smiled as he aimed down both shotguns’ double maws at the thief’s head. “Hello, Rance. Long time, no see. Where you off to in such an all-fired hurry? With my mule, no less . . . ?”
Rance Starrett’s eyes blazed with both fear and fury as he stared over his horse’s twitching ears at Shotgun Johnny Greenway bearing down on him with his savage Twins. Starrett held his reins up taut against his chest. His horse, a fine gray brindle, had turned one-quarter sideways to the trail, so Starrett’s six-shooter, holstered on his right hip, faced Johnny.
When Starrett glanced from Johnny toward the bone-gripped Colt, Johnny said, “Go ahead. Give it a try, Rance. See how far you get before I muddy up the trail with your bloody hide.”
Johnny wouldn’t hesitate doing just that any more than he’d hesitated before perforating the other men in Starrett’s raggedy-tailed pack. Starrett, a good-looking cuss in his late twenties, belonged to a moneyed patriarchal family headed up by Garth Starrett, one of the largest ranchers on the northeast side of the Sierra Nevadas. Starrett’s Three-Bar-Cross sprawled across nearly an entire county, and what land he didn’t own in and around Hallelujah Junction, he was likely making a play for.
Not a legal play, either . . .
Starrett had no truck with legality, only money and power. He’d passed along his own values to Rance, who hadn’t amounted to much. From the time the kid was old enough to wield a gun and ride a horse, both of which he did pretty well, he’d been a firebrand who’d gone from cattle rustling to stagecoach holdups to rape and murder and now, finally, to robbing the gold run from the Reverend’s Temptation to the Bank & Trust in Hallelujah Junction. Garth Starrett’s wealth and power had always been able to get his worthless son out of even the deepest trouble—even two murder charges backed up by eyewitnesses, and the rape of a pretty young schoolteacher. Not to mention the rapes and killings of several parlor girls.
Such crimes had been covered up before they could be reported. But Johnny had heard about them. Most had heard about Rance Starrett’s blackhearted dealings.
His father wouldn’t get him out of the snag he’d just landed in here, however.
Johnny had been reading Rance’s mind. He could see the wheels turning in the man’s shrewd, amber eyes set deep beneath sun-bleached blond eyebrows. He was thinking that not even Shotgun Johnny would kill Rance Starrett. Not Garth Starrett’s oldest son. Not even Shotgun Johnny had the oysters to pull such a stunt, even after Rance had been caught with his proverbial hand in the cookie jar—or leading Johnny’s mule packing twenty-six thousand dollars in freshly milled gold.
Or so Rance thought.
At least, Johnny would hesitate to kill him. Hesitate long enough for Rance to drag that smoke wagon out of its hand-tooled black leather holster and shoot Johnny from point-blank range.
“Not worth it, kid,” Johnny warned. He shook his head, a thin smile tugging at his mouth. “Them panniers aren’t even packin’ gold.”
The churning of Starrett’s cunning mind paused and incredulity ridged his brows. “Huh?”
“What? You think I’d actually leave the gold in the camp when I myself had skinned out away from the fire?” Johnny grunted a caustic laugh. “You damn tinhorn.”
“You’re lyin’,” said Starrett, cocking his head to one side and narrowing a skeptical eye.
“Go on,” Johnny said, glancing at the mule standing behind Starrett’s edgy horse. “Check it out for yourself.”
Starrett turned back to Johnny, and he narrowed his eyes again. “All right. I just will!”
“Go ahead. Slow. One fast move, and your pa will have one helluva time recognizing your shredded carcass.”
“Stand down, you Basque devil. You so much as muss the part in my purty hair, my pa will have you run down and whipped like the sheep-dip-smellin’ greaser you are!”
Johnny ground his molars at the insult. But, then, he was used to such condescension. He’d been born Juan Beristain and he and his Basque parents and brother—of Spanish and French descent—had herded sheep around the Sierra Nevadas until a venal cattle rancher had murdered his family and made Juan an orphan. Juan had been homeless until another cattleman, Joe Greenway, had adopted him, changed his name to make his life easier, and given him a good home on his Maggie Creek Ranch between Reno and Virginia City.
Still, Johnny had to use every ounce of his self-control not to jerk young Starrett out of his saddle and bash his head in with one of the Twins.
“I’m not goin’ anywhere, Starrett. I’ll be right here, holding my purty Twins on you while you take a look inside them packs. If you so much as sneeze in the direction of your pistol, you’ll look mighty ridiculous with your head rolling around in the brush.”
Starrett spat in disgust then swung down from the saddle. He cast Johnny a glare of raw disdain then walked behind his horse to the mule, who brayed its apprehension at the whole affair.
“Shut up, you broomtail vermin!” Rance yelled at the mule.
Angrily, he freed the straps of the pannier mounted on the wooden pack frame and peered into the stout canvas sack. He froze, scowling. He glanced at Johnny, his amber eyes hard and cold, then reached into the pack. He pulled out a rock a little smaller than his head and slammed it onto the ground so hard both horse and mule jumped a foot in the air.
The mule brayed its indignance.
The horse tossed its head and whickered.
“A half-dozen men are dead for nothin’, Rance,” Johnny said. “Not that they wouldn’t have gotten their tickets punched sooner or later. I don’t think there was a one of them I hadn’t sent to the territorial pen when I was still packin’ a moon-and-star.”
Rance turned to face Johnny square. “Where is it?”
“I’ll show you.” Johnny smiled. “Just as soon as you throw down that hogleg . . . nice an’ slow . . . and put your wrists together so I can tie ’em. You’ll be joinin’ me back to Hallelujah Junction.”
“You think so, do ya?” It was Rance’s turn to grin.
Johnny’s spine tightened. At the same time he’d seen the mocking grin enter Starrett’s gaze, he’d heard the faint crunch of a stealthy footstep behind him.
Rance lifted his chin to shout, “Back-shoot the son of a buck, Chick! Back-shoot him!”
Johnny dropped like a wet suit off a clothesline.
As he did, a rifle barked behind him.
He rolled onto his back and, half sitting up, fired a barrel of each Twin into the man who’d stolen up to within fifteen feet of him.
Chick Ketchum’s torso turned to bloody pulp as both loads sawed into him. He danced away as though taken by a sudden, catchy tune he’d heard on the morning breeze, and waltzed straight off to the pearly gates while his potbellied body, clad in greasy buckskin trousers and a patched hickory shirt, collapsed on the trail.
“Ah, hell!” were Chick Ketchum’s last words cast out on a loud, deeply disgusted exhalation.
“Now, that was plumb stupid!” Johnny whipped around to where he’d expected to see Rance Starrett bearing down on him with his Colt. Only, Rance wasn’t bearing down on anything except possibly a meeting with ole Saint Pete.
Johnny climbed to his feet. Holding his Twins straight down by his sides, he stared down at Starrett. The firebrand lay sprawled on his back in the middle of the trail. He looked as though he’d been staked out by Indians, spread-eagle. He had his pistol in his right hand, but he hadn’t even gotten it cocked before Chick Ketchum’s bullet had plowed into the dead center of his chest.
One that had been meant for Johnny and likely would have hit its intended target if the witless Starrett hadn’t given Ketchum away.
Now Starrett stared, wide-eyed in death, straight up at the sun angling down through the high crowns of the pines lining the trail. The sun reflected off his pretty, thick, strawberry blond hair and his amber eyes. He had a dumbfounded expression on his face, but then, that was nothing new to Rance Starrett. Johnny believed Starrett had been born with such an expression, so it was only fitting he’d go out with one, too, not having learned one damn thing on this side of the sod.
And now he wouldn’t.
Kind of a shame in a way—to die little smarter than how you’d started out. But it wasn’t like the kid, having been born into a wealthy family, hadn’t had plenty of opportunities. He’d just chosen the wrong fork at every turn in the trail.
“Well,” Johnny said. “Let’s get you back to Hallelujah Junction. I reckon the least I can do is turn you over to your pa for a proper burial.”
He’d be damned if he’d waste time on gathering the others. The predators could dine on them. That’s what the tinhorns got for running with the lowly likes of Rance Starrett.
The next day, Shotgun Johnny reined his cream horse to a halt on a promontory-like shelf of rock jutting out over the Paiute River in the Northern Paiute River Valley, and was glad to see that the little boomtown of Hallelujah Junction hadn’t missed him while he’d been gone.
At least, if it had, it showed little sign. Even from here, on a high shoulder of Mount Sergeant from which the town was little larger than Johnny’s open hand, he could hear the tinkle of pianos and the occasional roars of the mostly male crowd being entertained in the two opera houses that abutted each end of the bustling little settlement, like bookends.
It was late in the day, almost night, and the light had nearly faded from Hallelujah Junction’s dusty streets. That which remained owned a dull yellow patina edging toward salmon. Smoke from cook fires swirled like diaphanous white snakes amidst all those purple-green shadows and yellow and salmon sun-rays, sometimes obscuring shake-shingled rooftops.
The sun had fallen behind the high western ridges of the northern Sierra Nevadas, and those crags, along with the slightly lower ones in the east, caused the sun to rise and fall later in the day, and for shadows to linger. Now those shadows had swallowed the town, and that was just fine with the burly miners, hardy shopkeepers, enterprising market hunters, professional gamblers and cardsharps, wily prospectors, oily con artists and snake oil salesmen, and coquettish soiled doves who’d settled in for the year, facing the long mountain winter ahead.
Settled in but not settled down.
They were all stomping with their tails up, judging by the din that Johnny could hear from his high perch, by the clumps of men milling on the streets between the saloons and gambling dens and parlor houses, of which there was virtually one for every man who’d come out here, braving the remoteness and relative lawlessness to seek wealth and adventure or to at least have a damn good time trying for either or both.
There were a few pistol shots, as well, rising above the low roar of generalized boomtown cacophony.
Those would likely either mark the unrestrained appreciation of the acting abilities of whatever troupe was in town, entertaining the crowds in one of the opera houses, or possibly a not-so-friendly dispute in a smoky, ill-lit gambling den tucked back in one of the less-than-respectable watering holes or houses of ill repute.
A girl’s terrified scream vaulted up from the smoky, darkening settlement, reaching Johnny’s ears high above and on the opposite side of the wide, black river. A man’s angry shout followed, followed in turn by yet another pistol shot.
A piano had fallen quiet during the apparent dustup but now it started again, and the general revelry continued in Hallelujah Junction, as well—life moving on as it always did even if a dead man and/or possibly a dead woman was being hauled out of one of the saloons or parlor houses to one of the town’s three undertakers. Possibly, a crazy drunk with blood on his hands was now being led away to Town Marshal Jonah Flagg’s jailhouse. The poor deceased Jake or Jill would be fitted with a crudely nailed together wooden overcoat and buried quickly the next day in the town’s bone orchard on a knoll to the southeast.
The culprit would soon follow after a celebratory hanging on the main street of the town, complete with barking dogs, laughing children, and a four-piece band. Six fee. . .
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