A kill-crazy butcher is loose in the Arizona territory and only one man is bold enough to end the mayhem . . .
Johnstone Country. The Killing Starts Now.
Luke Jensen joins a posse of misfits and greenhorns on a murderous manhunt that’s doomed from the start—and there’s no turning back . . .
THE BULLET STOPS HERE
Someone is terrorizing the Arizona border. Burning down ranches. Butchering travelers. Blazing a trail of bloodthirsty raids and robbing the railroads blind. His name is Melichus. A ruthless half-breed outlaw with a mile-long record of cruelties and crimes, he’s the most wanted man in the territory. And the massive price on his head has attracted the attention of every trigger-happy, would-be bounty hunter this side of the Rio Grande. But Luke Jensen knows something they don’t:
The bigger the bounty, the deadlier the prey.
Against his better judgment, Luke accepts an offer from the Great Southern Railroad to lead a posse of hired guns to stop Melichus in his tracks. Problem is, the gunmen are untrained, undisciplined, and unruly. To make matters worse, a meddlesome pair of Pinkertons are along for the ride, too. But the real trouble starts when their team gets caught in a three-sided gunfight with an Apache war party and the Mexican Army. It’s fast becoming the bloodiest manhunt Luke’s ever seen—and the final showdown could be his last . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: July 25, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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The Bullet Stops Here
William W. Johnstone
Keating’s Saloon fit right in, and its main claim to fame was cheaper-than-average alcohol. It was a place of brooding drunks, quick tempers, and low, back-shooting men. Its one and only claim to culture was Orville and Maddy.
Orville had been kicked in the head by a mule as a small boy. It was widely agreed that this kick knocked out what few brains he had, crossed his eyes, and somehow made him a piano player par excellence. In addition to that talent, for twenty-five cents, Orville would bite the head off a living chicken, a considerably less artistic endeavor.
Maddy was two hundred and fifty pounds of robust soiled dove. She had a ham-fisted right hook that had put more than one aggressive customer ass over teakettle. She held little compunction about using the straight razor or pepperbox derringer tucked into her garters, and this was as widely known as Orville’s talent at the piano. However, Maddy was a cheerful drunk for the most part and stayed drunk most of the time.
She held a monopoly on the clientele of the Keating Saloon.
At the moment she stood on a groaning table, skirt hiked up over her hips and showing colorful bloomers as large as ship sails as she shook her ample backside in time to Orville’s piano playing.
“Drink that rot gut, drink that rot gut!” she howled in a fair passing singing voice. “Drink that red eye, boys, it don’t make a damn wherever we land!”
A crowd of vagrants and petty crooks had gathered around the dancing mountain of a woman and were stomping their feet and clapping their hands in time to Maddy’s dancing. Orville finished banging out the tune and grabbed the half-empty mug of murky liquid next to him.
Tilting his head back, the sometime carnival geek drank in big, greedy swallows. He drank so fast the brownish liquor poured down the sides of his cheek and stained his shirt collar even more than it already was from the grime on his neck. Finishing the glass, he burped happily.
Besides piano playing and oral chicken decapitation, Orville had another job. He came to his feet, a short, scrawny man with greasy hair and a bum leg, and picked up a dirty pitcher from beside the piano and began searching the bar. Whenever he came upon the dregs of an unfinished drink, he would dump it into the pitcher. Behind the bar was a large bucket with the words Mule Piss scrawled on it.
The more adventurous or desperate of the Keating Saloon customers could purchase a glass of the recycled alcohol for pennies. Passing out at a table or the bar counted as finishing your drink and Orville always found enough beer, rotgut, tequila, and sour mash to add to the Mule Piss barrel.
As he worked, men loudly toasted Maddy as she continued to shake her bottom. They cheered louder when she turned and shook her overly ample bosom as well.
Not every customer was entertained by Maddy. There were several serious drinkers in the place. Men who sat down and steadily drank until they passed out. They went about it like a laborer going about his work, and some scowled at being distracted from their task.
There was another kind of customer in the Keating as well. Men who were uncomfortable in more law-abiding or upscale establishments. Establishments that, say, kept a good working relationship with the marshal.
Two such men stood at one end of the bar, backs to the celebrating crowd cheering as Maddy produced one plump breast from her shirt. These two men were talking to each other and clearly didn’t want to be interrupted. They had the hard eyes of veteran gunhawks and big irons rode on their hips, tied down and within easy reach of their hands.
The Whatley brothers, Timothy and Eli, mostly made their living from wet stock: rustled Mexican cattle or horses driven across the Rio Grande into Texas. Darker rumors circulated around them, as well. Whispers about stagecoach robberies where no witnesses were left behind. Back shootings of men who’d crossed them or beaten them too handily in cards.
So far their luck had held and there was never enough proof for them to be brought in by the law, much less brought up on charges and hanged as they surely deserved.
Tim Whatley was a gangly skeleton of a man with one wandering eye where his father had brained him with a piece of firewood as a boy. He carried a grudge about his looks because other than the eye he would have been considered handsome in a rough, frontier way. Men who happened to stare at the wandering eye were apt to find themselves struck with the butt of Timothy’s revolver. Men who made jokes about it sometimes went missing.
Eli was lean as well, with bowlegs and a Texas handlebar mustache of such epic proportions it looked like an opossum was hibernating on his upper lip. Tim was the talker; Eli was a brooder with a reputation for back shooting.
“Gotta take a leak,” Tim said.
Eli grunted in response.
Tim, his mind on his business, turned to walk out the back door to the stinking outhouse set behind the saloon. Just as he did, Orville, carrying the Mule Piss bucket, came around a nearby table. The two men collided and the bucket flew out of Orville’s grasp. The piano player stumbled back as the bucket bounced off the rough hewn plank floor.
The noxious liquid inside spilled out like a river overflowing its banks and splashed across Tim’s boots. Maddy, who’d seen the whole thing, stopped dancing. An expression of frightened horror gripped her face. It took a moment for the drunken crowd cheering her to realize something was wrong. The clapping died out and the men turned, taking in the scene immediately.
Those who felt they were too directly behind the shaking Orville backed out of the way. Silence settled over the boisterous saloon in a dark cloud. All eyes went to the rigid and silent Tim Whatley as he looked down at his soaked boots. The smell of cheap beer and rotgut rose up, filling Tim’s nose.
“Ah, jeez, mister.” Orville breathed. “I sh-sh-sure am s-s-sorry!”
With a sound of groaning wood and several deep gasps for breath, Maddy climbed down off the table. Behind Tim, Eli Whatley reached into a brine-filled jar and pulled a hard-boiled egg from it. The sound of the shell cracking as he busted it against the bar seemed very loud in the pregnant silence following Orville’s stuttered apology.
“Orville didn’t mean nothing, Tim!” Maddy protested as she came up. “Don’t you hurt that boy!”
Tim looked down at his pants. They were wet from the knee down and reeking. His boots gleamed with the noxious liquid. He looked back up at the trembling young man. His hand came to rest on the butt of his pistol.
“I said don’t you hurt that boy—” Maddy started yelling.
Tim’s hand left the butt of his pistol in a blur and streaked toward the whore. His knuckles struck her in the heavily rouged bow of her lips and rocked her head back. The blow landed with a sound like a drover’s whip popping. Maddy stumbled, hands flying to her mouth where a trickle of blood began flowing.
Tim’s hand returned to his gun butt in the same blur of motion, and this time he filled his hand with the big iron. It came out of the holster like a snake striking and the metallic click of the hammer cocking sounded loud as the slap to the nervous onlookers.
Still looking at shaking Orville, Tim leveled the pistol at the big woman. Her eyes crossed slightly in an unfortunate parody of Orville’s as she regarded the cavernous muzzle.
“Oh, lordy,” she whispered hoarsely. “Please don’t kill me, mister. I’ll give you a freebie if you like.”
Maddy was fierce and given her druthers she would have dealt with some cowpuncher pointing a gun at her in an entirely different manner. But the Whatleys weren’t cowpunchers. They were legitimate hardcases. Tim Whatley was too fast and too ruthless to try.
“Stop talking, Maddy,” Eli advised.
He bit into his egg and began chewing noisily. His chin was shiny with the dribbling liquid from inside the egg jar. He was an open mouth chewer and bits of egg stuck in clumps to his crooked yellow teeth.
Maddy slowly backed away, hands up. Once she was safely away, Tim, still regarding Orville with an unreadable face, lowered the hammer and reholstered the gun. His hand remained resting on the pistol.
“That was stupid,” Tim said. “I’m wet, dammit.”
“S-s-sorry, Mr. Whatley,” Orville repeated.
His eyes were wet with unspilled tears of fear. He swallowed once, hard enough that his large Adam’s apple made a dry clicking sound. He was so frightened his knees began shaking.
“You made the mess,” Tim Whatley said. “You clean ’em.”
“Yessir!” Orville replied.
He was obviously relieved. Cleaning the boots was a better outcome than he had any right to hope for.
“I’ll just get the bar rag!” Orville said, eager to please.
There was the blur, too fast for onlookers to see fully, and then the pistol was out and the hammer cocked, muzzle pushed into a startled Orville’s belly. The slow-witted piano player looked down in confusion.
“Mister—” he began.
Tim cut him off, voice hard. “You ain’t touching my boots with no nasty old bar rag, idjit.”
“You’re going to use your tongue.”
The words hung between them for a moment as Orville tried to work out the meaning.
“My tongue?” he finally asked.
The gun moved as Tim Whatley punched it into Orville like a spear. The barrel rammed into Orville’s gut and the air escaped him in a rush. Fighting to breathe, the gasping Orville fell to his knees.
“Yes, your tongue, idjit!” Tim snarled. “You’re going to lick my boots so clean you can see your damned stupid face in ’em.” His grin was savage. “Get to licking, or I’m gonna gut shoot you right here and now.”
“Gut shot is a painful way to go,” Eli observed, nodding solemnly as if he had just uttered something profound.
Eli had finished the egg and was leaning against the bar like a spectator at a burlesque show. His hand now rested on his own pistol and he casually eyed the bar patrons, daring someone to try and stop the show.
Tears spilled down Orville’s face as he lowered himself to his knees before the smirking Tim Whatley. The Mule Piss had mixed with the grimy sawdust and dust on the saloon floor to form a disgusting mud. Orville’s pants were instantly soaked in the muck as he knelt.
“That’s it,” Tim said, voice low and hard and utterly devoid of mercy. “You lick them boots like your life depended on it, idjit.”
“’Cause it does,” Eli added.
He was grinning, in obvious high humor. He’d seen a similar situation play out before. They’d swung down into Mexico looking for Apache scalps to sell in Ciudad where the bounty was high following some raids.
Apaches had proven difficult to track and were known to be dangerous. To save themselves time and unnecessary peril they found an isolated granja, or homestead, out in the flat lands.
The family had been poor and armed with a muzzle-loaded rifle that proved unreliable. Tim had made each family member—father, mother, teenage sister, and young brother—lick their boots. They’d done it because they believed it would save their lives. The Whatley brothers had found this comically stupid of them.
They tied the father to a fence post next to the goat pen and forced him to watch as they beat his wife and daughter repeatedly. When they were done they shot each one in the chest, starting with the boy and working up to the sobbing father. Then they took their scalps, pulled them into the pitiful dwelling that served them as shelter, and lit the place on fire.
When they tried selling the scalps to the Mexican authorities, the military officer in charge of the bounty program had instantly realized the scalps belonged to Mexican citizens and not wild Apache raiders. This had instigated a race for the border that they had just barely won.
All in all, it had proven a less than profitable endeavor. Nevertheless Eli had never forgotten the intense pleasure of making another human being lick his boots. He’d felt like a king. He missed that feeling.
“You lick these boots real good, idjit,” Tim urged. “Go on!”
Trembling and crying, Orville leaned forward, head cocked to one side so he could locate Tim Whatley’s boot with his crossed eyes, his tongue poking out like a strip of uncooked pork. Satisfied, Tim uncocked and reholstered his pistol.
“That’s about enough of that,” a new voice said.
The voice was unhurried, calm. It could have been commenting on the weather.
As one, both brothers turned with incredulous looks at the man who’d just entered the saloon. The batwings still swung a little, slowly, behind him.
Neither Whatley brother liked what he saw. The stranger was tall, with the lean build of a man built for endurance, and dressed all in black, although the layer of trail dust on his shirt and trousers gave them a gray cast. Two gleaming Remington revolvers rode on his flat hips. He stood easily, casually even, thumbs hooked behind the buckle of his gun belt, Stetson cocked back on his head. With the light behind him, it was difficult to make out any details about his face.
“I don’t know who you are,” Tim Whatley snarled, “but you picked the wrong saloon to stick your nose in.”
Eli stepped up next to his brother, hand on his five-shot Colt revolver. He didn’t have anything to add to Tim’s warning, but he nodded gravely, like a parishioner in a pew agreeing with the preacher’s fire-and-brimstone message.
“Well,” the stranger said softly. “I have you at an advantage, then. You’re Tim Whatley and that’s your horse’s ass of a brother, Eli. Together you two are worth six hundred dollars to the city of Ciudad, which, given the particular nastiness of your crime, seems low, in my expert opinion.” The man shrugged. “But Ciudad is right across the river, not too far to haul your stinking hides, and the pesos they pay off in will spend just fine.”
“Bounty killer,” Eli spat just before the Keating Saloon exploded into a frenzy of violence.
The bystanders stared in stupid wonder as the gunfight erupted. The stranger’s hands dipped and came up filled with the Remington .44 revolvers. His thumbs clicked back the hammers.
Orville froze where he was and Tim stumbled over him as he drew his own pistol. The loud, harsh bang of the stranger’s first shot sounded like a thunderclap in the smoky room and the stench of gun smoke filled his nostrils.
A neat red hole appeared in Tim Whatley’s chest and the hardcase stumbled backward, coming up hard against the bar with a look of quizzical shock on his face. Eli had always been the faster brother, and he got his gun out and level, the flat of his hand reaching to fan the hammer, by the time the stranger’s second Remington spoke.
Because Eli was faster, this shot was more rushed, and the heavy-caliber slug took him high in the stomach and folded him over like a book closing. Eli grunted and blood rushed out of his mouth. He was a stubborn bastard, and his hand reached his hammer, pushing it back.
The stranger fired again as Eli’s hammer fell. The outlaw’s shot went low and wide, the last act of a desperate, dying man. The stranger’s third bullet took Eli Whatley in the forehead and blood misted red out the back of the man’s skull.
Both men landed with heavy thumps on the floorboards and their pistols clattered down beside them. The stranger twisted at the hips, cocking back both hammers simultaneously, and covered the crowd in case the owlhoots had friends with big ideas.
To a man the startled onlookers, shocked into sobriety, held up their hands, showing they offered no offense. Slowly, the stranger’s temper cooled and he lowered his pistols, uncocking the hammers as he did. When the big irons slid into their holsters, everyone in Keating’s Saloon gave a sigh of relief.
Maddy, in a somewhat frightening rush, given her not inconsiderable girth, rushed toward the man. She didn’t give him a chance to speak but instead crushed him into a hug so fierce he was left slightly dizzy.
“Thank you, mister, thank you!” she said. She looked at him and added, “Why, hello!” because his somewhat craggy face, while not handsome, possessed a rugged power that many women found attractive.
Orville came slowly forward, gratitude on his face. Some memory of how to express that gratitude must have stirred in his brain, because he stuck out his hand and said, “I . . . I’m m-m-mighty obliged to you, sir.”
Most people in El Paso wouldn’t have shaken the hand of someone like Orville. More than likely, they would have drawn back in revulsion if he’d offered it.
Not this stranger. He clasped Orville’s hand, nodded, and said, “Don’t mention it, son. Somebody would have gotten around to killing this worthless scum sooner or later. What’s your name?”
“I’m c-called Orville, sir.”
“Pleased to meet you, Orville,” the stranger said. “My name is Jensen. Luke Jensen.”
Luke Jensen reined in his horse.
Around him East Texas pines pressed in, the twilight bringing a gathering gloom and thickening shadows. The sun was gone from the sky above the tops of the trees. The branches held the heat of the day trapped down low in the woods, and Luke’s dark shirt clung to him, made even darker by sweat. The air was thick with the astringent, gin-like smell of the pines.
Removing his black hat, he swept his sleeve across his forehead, soaking up the perspiration clinging there. His hair was lank with sweat. The humidity here was far different from farther west, out on the frontier where the air was dry as an old skeleton. What it reminded him of most was Georgia during the war, back when the Yankees burned Atlanta.
Luke didn’t think much about the war these days. It had ended badly for him. But it had started him on the road to a new life.
He drank from his canteen and eyed the sandy trail his horse stood on. Dried pine needles littered the ground in a soft carpet. He saw the track of another horse in the soft soil. He was getting closer. His job was hunting men, and this search was reaching its finish. He was glad, because it had been a long ride from El Paso and the money he’d collected on the Whatley brothers was just about gone.
Jack Davies was wanted for the brutal treatment of a girl in Plano, up close to Dallas, and the murder of a gambler in Nacogdoches. He’d escaped the rope and disappeared back into the pine barrens his family called home. The Rangers were needed up in the Panhandle, chasing Comanche raiders, and south along the border, battling bandidos from the other side of the Rio Grande, leaving them stretched too thin to run down a lone rapist and murderer. That left local lawmen, none of whom were keen on taking a posse of tenderfoot townsmen into the piney woods after the Davies clan.
The bounty grew to five hundred dollars and that was enough money to put Luke on the trail.
Luke studied the woods as he lowered the canteen. With the coming of evening the birds had grown still. Squirrels and chipmunks no longer scurried through the underbrush. The silence grew oppressive. The last town was a four-hour ride west. He was alone in these woods.
The horse nickered, and he soothed the animal without conscious thought. Something was wrong, something had changed in the woods. His life could depend on finding out what it was. He stared through the branches, searching for the source of his unease.
Up ahead, the trail curved and disappeared behind a tangle of blackberry thorns. His head came up in recognition. Smoke.
He smelled kindling burning close by. Cautious now, he dismounted. Drawing the Henry rifle from its saddle sheath, he stood quietly, ears pricked for the slightest sound. He worked the action carefully, seating a round in the chamber.
“Let’s just see what’s what,” he told the horse.
Putting the butt of the rifle against his hip, Luke took the reins and began slowly leading his mount forward. With every step the smell of wood smoke increased. Now he smelled something else, something fetid, and a fouler odor beneath that.
The smell reminded him of Georgia as much as the humidity had.
Luke frowned in disapproval.
Someone had skunked a load of ’shine.
Quality moonshiners cleaned their copper lines and drums. They didn’t let old fermentation residue sit in the boilers. Only lazy varmints with no appreciation of good liquor would do something so criminally lackadaisical.
Stepping quietly now, Luke led the horse off the trail. He laid the animal’s reins across a low branch and began slipping through the piney woods like he was hunting whitetail deer. Each footstep was carefully placed to avoid snapping a fallen branch or catching a root.
He had a rough direction on the smoke and he angled toward the scent, moving carefully to keep the trunks of trees between him and where he anticipated the source of the smoke was located. In the next step he discerned the outline of a building through the branches and froze before sinking to one knee.
His heart beat faster as adrenaline leaked into his body. There was a sense of tingling anticipation that came with his approach to the building. Sudden violence was a looming possibility. The world narrowed to what was in immediate reach of his senses.
He felt the weight of the rifle, the humidity soaking his clothes, the soft, almost imperceptible droning of insects buzzing around him. The sharp, acrid aroma of wood smoke, the stench of the poorly cleaned still. Now he detected the murmur of voices as well.
He slowed his approach even further. Each step was a dance. He lifted his foot high and then slid it down toe first to ease beneath forest debris, rather than crunching through it. He was cat dancing, like an Indian raider. Slinking forward, he turned sideways and slipped between two tamarack pines and came around a sprawling gooseberry bush the size of a stagecoach.
The rundown shack of an old cabin sat in a little clearing.
In the dirt yard sat a good-sized still. Copper lines twisted and snaked from fifty-gallon tin boilers to the condenser. The main structure of the still sat on top of a Dutch-oven-style furnace that a man was steadily feeding kindling into.
The figure stoking the fire looked to be in his late fifties, no shirt under a pair of worn bib overalls, and not wearing any shoes. A shapeless Confederate cavalry hat . . .
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