The thundering new adventure starring traveling gunslinger John Holt, a lawman-for-hire on a mission to serve justice across the untamed Colorado territories—one bullet at a time.
One of the deadliest, crime-infested towns in Colorado Territory, Devil's Gulch needed more than a sheriff. They needed a gunslinger. So they pinned a badge on hardcase lawman John Holt. And the rest is history.
As the town's new sheriff, John Holt achieved the impossible: He drove the devil out of Devil's Gulch. Corrupt, cutthroat rancher Joe Mullen—who ruled the land with an iron fist—is finally behind bars, thanks to Sheriff Holt. But the tables are turned when Mullen manages to overturn his prison wagon and make his escape—with an army of prisoners, outlaws, and lowlifes to do his bidding.
It doesn't take long for the streets of Devil's Gulch to run red with blood. Again. Or for Holt to be marked for death. Again. But this time, the sheriff's up against more than a hundred men—all of them gunning for him—and his only allies are an all-too-young deputy, an all-too-angry farmer, and a wayward wagon cook. With odds this bad, Holt is sure of only one thing: when you shoot at the devil, it's best not to miss.
Release date: October 24, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 336
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William W. Johnstone
To Holt, the rattling chains that bound Joe Mullen’s hands and feet sang a sad hymn. A month before, Mullen had been the most powerful man in Devil’s Gulch and one of the most important people in the territory. The town had rarely decided on matters of importance without first seeking Mullen’s opinion. Now, he was nothing more than a common criminal. A man convicted of murdering an outlaw in cold blood.
Sheriff Holt might have enjoyed the irony of a killer murdering another killer if it was not all so tragic. And despite all the bad blood that had flowed between them, he did not enjoy seeing Mullen in chains. He was always saddened by waste and Joe Mullen’s predicament was a waste. The rancher and mine owner possessed many talents that could have made Devil’s Gulch the envy of the territory. Instead of using them for good, he used them to further his own greed.
Holt had expected Mullen to put up more of a struggle when the time came to get in the wagon, but he had been as meek as a lamb. He had once been a proud, boisterous man of means and property. He had the town of Devil’s Gulch firmly in his grasp. But now he was just another prisoner crammed beneath a web of iron bars on his way to the Colorado Territorial Prison.
Holt remembered Doc Klassen determined that Mullen had suffered a conniption during his incarceration. The prisoner’s entire left side had been paralyzed for weeks. He had only regained use of his left leg a week before. As he watched Mullen lower himself to sit on the crowded bench beside two other prisoners, Holt could see his ordeal had robbed him of more than just feeling in his leg or arm. It had robbed him of feeling anything.
The heavy iron door squealed as Deputy United States Marshal Dan Wheeler slammed it shut and held it in place while he padlocked it. Holt noticed how small the heavy padlock looked in Wheeler’s large hands.
“Didn’t expect this one to go in that easy,” the big deputy marshal said as he walked back to the jail. “Heard he gave you quite a time when you first brought him in.”
Holt took a final look at Mullen before turning to join Wheeler. He had been with Mullen constantly since before his conviction and sentencing the month before. He knew he should have felt some sort of remorse for him, but he did not, except perhaps a bit of sorry at who Joe Mullen might have been.
“He had more fight in him back then,” Holt told him. “My neck is still sore from him trying to strangle me. Guess he lost all of the fight in him since.”
“Conniption’s what I heard.” Wheeler nudged Holt with an elbow to the shoulder. “That’s where we differ, John. I’d have killed him if he’d tried to strangle me.”
Holt saw no reason to debate tactics with him. Wheeler was a big man. Nearly five inches taller than Holt’s six feet, and much heavier. Most of it was solid, but less of it was with each passing year. He had the look of a man accustomed to getting his way and Holt was not in the mood to argue. “I’d rather see him spend the rest of his life in jail.”
“And that he will, I promise you,” Wheeler told him. “He’s used to easy living up on that ranch of his. We’ll see how he likes standing on a prison chow line eating porridge three times a day. I don’t think he’ll take to it. He’ll be dead in a year. Eighteen months, tops.”
But Holt was not so sure. Bitter experience had taught him that anyone who found themselves on the opposite side of Joe Mullen would do well to not sell him short. “He might not be able to make a run for it, but his mind is sharper than ever. You’d best not forget that in your travels.”
Wheeler stopped outside the jail and took his time in looking over Holt. He did not seem impressed by what he saw. “That’s strange coming from you. I’ve heard you’re no one’s idea of a Sunday social either.”
“You’ve heard right,” Holt told him.
The two lawmen walked into the warmth of the jail, where Holt signed papers granting the federal government custody of Joe Mullen.
Holt had made a practice of never telling another lawman what he should do, but he could not let Wheeler ride off without speaking his mind. “The man down at the livery tells me that your cook wagon is still being repaired.”
Wheeler frowned as he folded the papers and tucked them in his vest pocket. “Threw a wheel right before we came into town this morning. The terrain in this part of the territory is hard on horse and haulers alike. The prison wagon is as solid as they come, but that cook wagon is as almost as rickety and fickle as the old man I’ve got driving it. Me and Bob got it back on well enough to bring us here, but it was slower going than I would’ve liked.”
That was the part that bothered Holt. “But you’re still planning on bringing these men to the territorial prison alone?”
“The government doesn’t pay me to wait around,” Wheeler said. “They pay me to bring my prisoners in on time and alive. I don’t plan on waiting around just because my cook wagon is busted. I have a schedule to keep.”
Holt decided it was time to break his rule about advice to lawmen. “I’d strongly advise you to wait for him, Wheeler. The livery says they’ll have that wheel fixed in a day or so. Why take chances riding alone over rough terrain with a bunch like this? You’re more than welcome to keep your prisoners here in my jail until your cook wagon is ready to go.”
Wheeler tucked a cheroot in the corner of his mouth and struck a match alive off Holt’s desk to light it. “That’s awful neighborly of you, John, but I have to decline. Waiting here is the sensible thing to do. It’s expected, which is why I won’t do it.” He waved the flame dead and tossed the match out the door and into the thoroughfare. “If it was just me, I’d be inclined to do what you say. But it just so happens that I’ve got a wagon filled with wanton cutthroats, thieves, and nasty individuals of every low human description. Some of them have ridden with some bad people. People who might be looking to break them out if I stay in one place too long. Got a fella named Hardt in there who has some particularly unsavory friends. The sooner I get them locked up behind bars, the sooner I’ll be able to rest.”
He tossed his thumb toward the doorway. “Don’t let those blue skies fool you, Holt. You’re new to this territory. You haven’t seen how fast the weather can turn ugly out here. We could have a foot of snow tomorrow and ice after that, making the trail impassible. It’s already plenty rough as it is. If I delay, I could wind up being forced to stay here all winter.”
Holt did not see the problem. “That’d be fine by me. We can always use the extra help and we’d see to it your prisoners were healthy.”
“I couldn’t care less about their well-being,” he admitted. “But I do care about my schedule. If I need to winter someplace, I’d rather it be in my own bed at the prison instead of on a cot here in Devil’s Gulch.”
Wheeler tried a smile as he rubbed his right hip. “You’re too young to appreciate this, but I’m not as young as I once was. The years and the miles seem to have piled up on me in the past few months. Guess it’s made me lonesome for my comforts. The sooner I get there, the happier I’ll be.”
Holt was not trying to be difficult, but he decided to put a finer edge on his words. “I might be new to the territory, but I know a thing or two about weather. The snow is still a week or so away. The trip to the prison takes three days. You’d fare better on the road with two of you watching the men instead of just you.”
But Wheeler was clearly not having any of it. “I’ve been transporting prisoners from one end of this territory to the other since I was your age. I know how to handle six criminals in a cage. Five and a half, given Mullen’s condition.”
Holt decided trying to convince Wheeler to delay his trip was useless. He had told the man his concerns and that would have to be enough. He could not force the issue. “Since you won’t listen to reason, how about a word of advice?”
The marshal grinned. “Sure, young fella. Just what are you gonna tell me that I don’t already know about hauling prisoners?”
“Gag Mullen before you hit the road,” Holt told him. “His limbs might not work too well at present, but there’s nothing wrong with his mouth or his mind. I’ve seen how convincing he can be when given the chance. He’s more than capable of turning those men against you more than they’re already inclined to be. You just might find yourself with something of an uprising on your hands before you reach the prison.”
Wheeler took the cheroot from his mouth and flicked the ash on the floor. “He can talk to them until he’s blue in the face. Won’t do him any good. Want to know why?” He beckoned Holt to come closer, as if he was about to tell him a secret. “On account of me not giving them a chance to run. See, I don’t plan on opening that door again until we reach the prison.”
Holt pulled away from Wheeler. “Not even to stretch their legs or tend to their business?”
“Nope,” Wheeler said. “There’s more than enough room in there for them to spread out if they’re of a mind to. As for their business, that’s their problem. If they had wanted to be treated like human beings, they shouldn’t have broken the law in the first place. Would’ve saved themselves, the territory, and me a whole mess and bother if they had. They put themselves in that wagon, Holt. Not me. They’ll just have to live with the consequences.”
Holt had heard some odd strategies from lawmen in his time, but this one took the prize. “It’s liable to get mighty ripe in that wagon.”
“Good thing I plan to keep up a good pace,” he said. “I like to keep my prisoners lean and hungry with only hardtack and water each morning. Maybe a mouthful of coffee at night if I’m feeling generous. In my experience, a hungry man is easier to bring to heel than a fed one.”
A hungry man’s also more liable to get desperate and cut your throat, Holt thought. But Wheeler had made it clear that he neither wanted nor needed his advice, so he kept his opinions to himself.
Instead, he offered his hand to Wheeler. “Then I wish you the best of luck on your journey. For all of our sake.”
The two men shook hands as a man out on the street called out Wheeler’s name. “Hold on a minute, Daniel. I need to talk with you.”
Wheeler frowned as he stepped outside. “That’ll be Old Bob, my cook. He’s going to take this news worse than you. That old man has been trying to baby me for years.”
Holt joined Wheeler on the boardwalk in time to see a man with a long, tangled gray beard who looked to be in dire need of a bath. His skin and clothes bore the dull patina of a lifetime spent on the trail that Holt doubted any amount of scrubbing would remove. He doubted Bob would even try. Men like him never cared much for appearances or money. They lived off the miles they had traveled and the endless stories they produced.
“Just hold on right where you are, Daniel,” the cook called out. Three yellowed teeth hung on for dear life at the front of his mouth and caused him to whistle when he spoke. But despite his ragged appearance, the Winchester he toted was spotless and gleamed in the morning sunlight. “I aim to go with you.”
Wheeler shook his head. “Not a chance, old-timer. You’ve got to stay with the wagon until it’s fixed. Says so in the regulations.”
“Them regulations you’re so fond of quoting when it suits you say nothing of the kind,” Bob told him. “And that wagon will still be here when we get back in a couple of weeks if the weather holds out.” He held up a canvas bag. “I managed to scrounge up enough supplies for us to make the trip there and back with nary a thought. It won’t be biscuits and gravy every morning, but it’s a lot better than you just wandering the wilderness by your lonesome.”
Wheeler took the sack of supplies from him. “I won’t be lonesome. I’ve got six friendly prisoners to keep me company. And in case you forgot, that cook wagon of yours is federal property. You can’t just leave it here unattended. Like I just got through telling the sheriff here, I can handle this on my own. I don’t need you.”
“What you need is a good dose of common sense.” The cook looked at Holt. “Tell it to him again, Sheriff. He won’t listen to me anymore. Thinks I’m worse than an old washerwoman with all my worrying. Tell him it’s just not sensible for a man to ride off alone with a passel of murderers, even if they are bound and chained.”
“I tried,” Holt said, “but he’s determined.”
“Stubborn is what he is.” Bob poked the deputy marshal in the chest with a bony finger. “You’ve been that way since the day I first laid eyes on you, and you haven’t changed a bit. You remind me of an old uncle I had once. You could tell him a storm was coming, but if he was of a mind to stay where he was, he’d just sit there and let the rain soak him to the bone. Never got sick on account of it, either, until the day he caught the coughing sickness and died.”
Wheeler shut his eyes. “You and your stories.”
Bob went on. “You say you’re concerned about territorial property? Well, it just so happens that you’re territorial property, too, Dan. And I’ll remind you that busted wagon back there is mine. The territory just pays me for the use of it. And you’re more valuable than a pile of pots and provisions. That’s why I’m going with you, and I won’t take no for an answer.”
The old cook decided he had done enough talking as he walked over to the wagon and started to climb up into the box. “I’ll just bring us back to the livery and pick up some of the things I packed. Won’t be but a minute.”
But Wheeler took a firm hold of Bob’s arm and prevented him from going any farther. “You’ll stay with the wagon like I told you. My word is final.”
Bob tried to pull away from him, but Holt saw the cook’s arm looked like a broom handle in Wheeler’s massive grip.
Bob gradually realized Wheeler would not allow him to come along and reluctantly stepped away from the wagon. “This is just plain, old-fashioned foolishness, Dan. Blind foolishness, just like my uncle and the coughing sickness. Especially after I went through all that trouble of packing up what we’d be needing for the trail.”
“Nobody asked you to do that.” Wheeler handed the sack back to him. “You’ve got no one to blame but yourself for the wasted effort. You can unpack it just as quickly as you packed it. I’ve already got everything I need for the trip.”
Wheeler was about to flick his cheroot into the thoroughfare but thought better of it and gave it to Bob instead. “Here. Puff on that awhile. It’ll make you feel better.”
The deputy marshal touched the brim of his hat to Holt before climbing up into the wagon. He might have said the years were creeping up on him, but he was spry for a man of his size. “So long, Sheriff. Keep an eye on Bob for me. See to it he doesn’t get into any trouble. And don’t let him have a jug either. Don’t let all that gray hair fool you. He’s a handful when he’s drinking. Don’t let him talk you to death. Just walk away from him when you get bored. He’ll hardly notice.”
The cook offered a crude response, most of which was drowned out by Wheeler throwing the handbrake and snapping the reins to get the four-horse team rolling out of town and on the road to prison.
“Well, if that don’t beat all.” Bob puffed away on the cheroot as he joined Holt in watching Wheeler go. “That man’s still as stubborn as the day I found him. No way to reason with him when he makes his mind up to something. No, sir. Not him.”
Holt imagined there was a deeper story there but did not care to hear it. “The livery told me you should be able to hit the road in a day or two. Maybe you’ll be able to make up some time and catch him on the trail.”
“No, I won’t. Not him.” Old Bob inhaled the last of the cheroot and burned his fingers as he spat it out. “He’ll push those horses and those men hard. Got it into his head that we’ve got some weather coming.” He continued to grumble as Wheeler and the prison wagon rounded the end of Main Street and disappeared. “Stubborn is what he is. No other word for it. Reminds me of a fella I used to ride with when I used to do some scouting for the army before the war.”
Holt was not in the mood for a story and saw no point in continuing their discussion. “If you need a place to stay, you’re more than welcome to sleep in the jail. We don’t have any prisoners at present, so it’ll probably be quiet. My deputy took off on me, so I’d welcome the company.”
Bob cocked a bushy eyebrow at Holt. “That young fella I heard about? The one who helped you stop Joe Mullen? Jack Turner, wasn’t it?”
“Jack Turnbull,” Holt corrected him.
“No good for a man to walk out on his responsibilities like that, especially a young one. What happened? You two have a fight?”
“That’s the problem,” Holt admitted. “Everything was fine until one day he was just gone.”
The business still troubled him. Holt had arrived at the jail one morning the previous week only to find a note from Jack waiting for him on his desk. The young man’s handwriting was nearly impossible to read, but from what Holt could make out, Turnbull claimed to have urgent business to tend to somewhere.
Holt could not imagine what business might require a teenaged orphan’s attention, and he had not been given the opportunity to ask him.
Holt did not like it, but he had no power over the young man. And with Mullen in jail, he could not ride after Jack to ask him. But he would be sure to have a long talk with the boy when he came back. If he came back, he reminded himself.
Holt decided not to dwell on it. “You can have the place to yourself most nights if we don’t have any customers. Can probably count on sleeping the whole night through. This town’s been kind of quiet with Mullen in here. Guess no one was particularly anxious to keep him company. Even the drunks have been behaving themselves.”
“Disagreeable sort, was he? Mullen, I mean.”
“Evil sort would be closer to the mark.” Holt stepped aside and gestured Bob to enter the jail. “Feel free to look the place over first if you want. See if it meets your approval.”
“No need for such formalities, Sheriff.” Bob glanced inside the jail. “It’s got four walls, a floor, and bars. Just like every other jail I’ve been to. I’m sure it’ll suit me just fine. I’ve slept in worse places.” The cook picked up his bag and waddled under the heavy load into the jail. “Like the time I was taken hostage by a band of Comanche renegades. Don’t know if you’ve ever come across their like, Sheriff, but they’re not known for their hospitality.”
Holt might have been able to do without a story for every topic, but he was glad Bob had taken him up on his offer. Before coming to Devil’s Gulch, Holt had always preferred to work alone. One less person to trust meant one less person to disappoint him.
But young Jack Turnbull had managed to change his opinion on the matter. He had just begun to grow accustomed to having him around when he took off. He was not so much hurt as disappointed. He thought Jack held more regard for him, despite the fact they had met while he took him into custody.
“Make yourself at home,” Holt said as he walked inside and took his rifle down from the rack on the wall. “It’s about time for me to walk the town anyway. I’ll do my best to be quiet when I get back in case you’re sleeping.”
“Be as loud as you like, Sheriff.” Old Bob tested the mattress for firmness. “I’ve never been one to sleep once the sun comes up anyway, but if I do, you won’t be able to wake me. Always sleep like a baby indoors. Guess that’s on account of it not happening too often. I spend most of my time out on the trail with Wheeler hauling criminals across creation. The stories I could tell you would make that dark hair of yours turn white. Why, there was one time I found myself in Golden City right after . . .”
Holt stepped out onto the boardwalk and pulled the door shut behind him. Bob was clearly a man who liked to talk. He was probably brimming with stories of men he’d known in his time. Places he had been. Outlaws he had killed. He imagined Wheeler featured prominently in most of them.
But John Holt had never been much of one for conversation. He always preferred to let his actions and his guns do his talking for him.
And although he had only been in Devil’s Gulch for little more than a month, his guns had already said quite a bit.
The sheriff took his time as he began the long walk along Main Street. Joe Mullen might be on his way to prison, but there was still plenty of trouble to be had if a man went looking for it. And the people of Devil’s Gulch were paying quite a sum to seek it out. He walked the boardwalks at least once a day at different times. It paid to let the people know he was around and keeping an eye on things.
His first few days as sheriff had resulted in quite a bit violence, more than Holt preferred. But the mood in town had calmed to a low boil in the weeks since Devil’s Gulch had lost their mayor to one of Mullen’s assassins and several citizens who had foolishly dared to test Holt’s mettle. He intended on keeping it that way.
When he had first come to town several weeks before, Holt learned the Blue Bottle Saloon was the center of political life in Devil’s Gulch. That first day, he had found Mayor Blair Chapman, Dr. Ralph Klassen, Joe Mullen, and Tony Cassidy in the middle of breakfast, discussing town business over plates of runny eggs and burnt bacon.
The town had changed since then. Mullen was being carted off to jail. Mayor Chapman had been killed and replaced in office by his widow. Doc Klassen took his breakfast at Jean Roche’s café. The Bottle, as it was known, had lost its shine for the town’s leading citizens.
But Holt knew that while Cassidy might not have had the influence he’d once enjoyed, he was far from docile or defenseless. The recent downturn in his fortunes had made him desperate to hold on to whatever power he had. Holt knew desperate men were often the most dangerous.
Which was why he had decided to make the Bottle his first visit following Mullen’s departure. Cassidy and his customers needed to be reminded they no longer ran Devil’s Gulch. That honor now belonged to Sheriff John Holt.
The strength with which he delivered that lesson would depend entirely on them.
Holt pushed in the door to the Blue Bottle Saloon and found Tony Cassidy at his usual spot, perched at the far end of the bar facing the door. He was slouched over a mug of coffee. He was too thin for his frame and his deep sunken eyes made it appear that he had not slept in more than a week. One might be forgiven for thinking Cassidy was sick, but Holt knew better. He always looked like that, and he was all too capable for Holt’s tastes.
His reddened eyes were lifeless when they fell on Holt as the sheriff approached him. Cassidy used to be sharp-tongued and always good for an insult. But on that morning, he looked ready to climb into bed and pull the blanket over his head.
“What do you want, Holt?” Cassidy sneered as Holt stopped ten feet away. “Did you come here to gloat? Because if you have, you might as well turn around and be on your way. I’m in no mood today.”
Holt had no intention of gloating, but he would not be run off by the saloon keeper either. “I wanted to make sure you knew that Mullen is on his way to prison. The marshal just took him away a few minutes ago. I figured you should hear it from me personally.”
Cassidy slid the coffee mug away from him. “What do you expect me to do about it? Throw myself on the floor, prostrate in grief? Give you an apology for all I’ve done or all that you think I’ve done.”
Holt shook his head. “Wouldn’t make much of a difference if you did.”
“Do you want me to go for my gun? Maybe get even for my poor friend Joe?” Cassidy stepped away from the bar and held his arms away from his sides. “Well, too bad for you that I ain’t armed.”
“I wouldn’t care if you were.” Holt smiled. “You’d never get the chance to pull it.”
Cassidy went back to the bar and picked up his mug. “Sorry to disappoint you, Sheriff. Guess I’m fresh out of feelings for the mo. . .
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