The national bestselling western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone bestselling Death & Texas series comes roaring back with a fresh new cover package.
Lone Star Sheriff Cullen McCabe has always been a risk-taker. But sometimes, taking a risk means taking a bullet—unless you kill first . . .
Sheriff McCabe knew he’d make a lot of enemies when he agreed to be a special agent for the Texas governor. But now that he’s managed to keep the peace in the hopeless town of New Hope, he’s hoping he can go home to Two Forks and get back to business as usual.
No such luck.
The corrupt marshal of East City, Micah Moran, and his murdering band of kill-crazy cutthroats are running wild, leaving the folks in East City in a deadly grip of terror. Now, Two Forks will have to wait because Micah Moran and his evil gang need to be taught some manners—with McCabe’s own brand of retribution.
Release date: September 26, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 336
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William W. Johnstone
Alma’s boss, Porter Johnson, owner of the Two Forks Kitchen, had talked to Marshal Woods about Tice’s search for vengeance against McCabe. Johnson was not concerned about the fate of either Tice or McCabe. His complaint was the fact that Jesse used his dining room as his base for surveillance, hoping McCabe would return. “Doggone it, Calvin,” he had complained to the marshal. “I’m runnin’ a dinin’ room, not a damn saloon. Folks come in here to eat, not to see some dirty-lookin’ old man waitin’ to shoot somebody.”
Marshal Woods had been unable to give Johnson much satisfaction when he responded to his complaint. “I hear what you’re sayin’, Porter,” he had replied. “I reckon you just have to tell Tice you don’t wanna serve him. That’s up to you to serve who you want to and who you don’t. I can’t tell folks where they can go and where they can’t. As far as that shootin’ in here, I told him right from the start that that fellow, McCabe, didn’t have no choice. Sonny started the fight and tried to shoot McCabe in the back, but he just wasn’t quick enough. I told Jesse I didn’t want any more killin’ in this town, so I’d have to arrest him if he shot McCabe.”
Looking at the old man now as he paused to scan the dining room before taking a seat near the door, Alma commented, “One of us might have to tell the ol’ buzzard we don’t want him in here. I don’t think Porter wants to get started with him. He’s probably afraid he’d start shootin’ the place up.”
“Maybe we oughta hope McCabe comes back to see us,” Gracie said. “Let him take care of Jesse Tice. He took care of Sonny proper enough.”
“Meanwhile, I’ll go wait on him and take his order for one nickel cup of coffee,” Alma said. She walked over to the small table close to the front door. “Are you wantin’ breakfast?” she asked, knowing he didn’t.
“No, I don’t want no breakfast,” he snarled. “I done et breakfast. Bring me a cup of coffee.” She turned and went to get it. He watched her for a few moments before bringing his attention back to the room now only half-filled with diners. He didn’t see anyone who might be the man who killed his son. The major problem Tice had was the fact that he had never actually seen Cullen McCabe up close. When he and his two sons had gone after McCabe, he had circled around them, stolen their horses, and left them on foot. Still, he felt that if he did see him, he would somehow know it was him. When the marshal tried to talk him out of seeking vengeance for the death of his son, Jesse was tempted to tell him that McCabe was a horse thief. He thought that would justify his reason for wanting to shoot him, but he was too proud to admit how his horses happened to get stolen. Every time he thought about the night he and his two sons had to walk twenty-five miles back home, it made him bite his lower lip in angry frustration. When Alma returned with his coffee, he gulped it down, having decided there was no use to linger there. It was already getting late for breakfast, so he thought he might as well go back to join Samson and Joe, who were keeping a watch for McCabe in the River House Saloon.
It had been several days since he returned to his cabin on the Brazos River after completing his last assignment from the governor’s office. The long hard job in the little town of New Hope had turned out to the governor’s satisfaction, and Cullen figured it would be a while before he was summoned for the next job. For that reason, he hadn’t bothered to check in with the telegraph office at Two Forks to see if he had a wire from Austin. He needed to do a little work on his cabin, so he had waited before checking with Leon Armstrong at the telegraph office. When he was not on assignment for the governor, he usually checked by the telegraph office at least once a week for any messages, and it had not been quite a week since he got back. Halfway hoping there might be a message, he pulled up before the telegraph office and stepped down from the big bay gelding. He casually tossed the reins across the hitching rail, knowing Jake wouldn’t wander, anyway.
Leon Armstrong looked up when Cullen walked in and gave him a cheerful greeting. “How ya doin’, Mr. McCabe? I got a telegram here for you. Figured you’d be showin’ up pretty soon.”
“Howdy, Mr. Armstrong,” Cullen returned. “Has it been here long?”
“Came in two days ago,” Armstrong said as he retrieved the telegram from a drawer under the counter. “Looks like you’re fixin’ to travel again.”
Cullen took only a moment to read the short message from Austin. “Looks that way,” he said to Armstrong, and folded the message before putting it in his pocket. “Much obliged,” he said, and turned to leave. It seemed kind of awkward that Armstrong always knew Cullen’s plans before he did, but since he was the telegraph operator, there wasn’t any way to avoid it.
“See you next time,” Armstrong said as Cullen went out the door. As curious as he was about the mysterious telegrams the big quiet man received from the governor’s office in Austin, he was reluctant to ask him what manner of business he was engaged in. And after the altercation between McCabe and Sonny Tice, he was even more timid about asking. For the most part, McCabe had very little contact with anyone in Two Forks except for him and Ronald Thornton at the general store. McCabe had an occasional meal at the Two Forks Kitchen and made a call on the blacksmith on rare occasions perhaps, but that was about all.
Cullen responded to Leon’s farewell with a flip of his hand as he went out the door. All the wire said was that he should come into the capital. That’s all they ever said, but it always meant he was about to be sent out on another assignment. So, his next stop would be Thornton’s General Merchandise to add to his supplies. As was his usual practice, he had brought his packhorse with him when he rode into town, in the event there was a telegram waiting. Austin was north of Two Forks, while his cabin was south of the town. So, by bringing the packhorse with him, there was no need to return to his cabin. Taking Jake’s reins, he led the big bay and the sorrel packhorse up the street to Thornton’s.
Jesse Tice and his two sons came out of the saloon and stood for a while on the short length of boardwalk in front. Looking up and down the street, hoping to catch sight of the man who shot his youngest, Jesse figured it another wasted day. Both Samson and Joe were content to participate in the search for the man called Cullen McCabe as long as their watching post was always the saloon. There was not a great deal of gray matter between the ears of either Joe or Samson and what there was seemed easily diluted by alcohol. Neither son carried the same driven desire their father had to avenge their brother. They generally figured that Sonny was bound to run into somebody he couldn’t outdraw in a gunfight and the results would be the same. “How ’bout it, Pa?” Samson asked. “We ’bout ready to go on back to the house?”
“Hold on,” Jesse said, something having caught his attention at the far end of the street. At that moment, Graham Price, the blacksmith, walked out of the saloon, heading back to his forge. Jesse stepped in front of Price. “Say,” he asked, “who’s the big feller leadin’ them horses to the general store?” He pointed to Thornton’s.
Price paused only long enough to say, “His name’s Cullen McCabe.” Having no more use for Jesse and his sons than most of the other citizens of Two Forks, he continued on toward his shop. Had he taken the time to look at the wide-eyed look of discovery on Jesse Tice’s face, he would have regretted identifying McCabe. As luck would have it, Jesse had asked one of the handful of people in Two Forks who knew McCabe’s name. As Price crossed to the other side of the street, he could hear the excited exchange of conversation behind him as the three Tice men realized their search had paid off.
Joe, Jesse’s youngest, now that Sonny was dead, ran to his horse to get his rifle, but Jesse stopped him. “Put it away, you damn fool! You’re too late, anyway, he’s done gone inside the store.”
“He’ll be comin’ back out,” Samson insisted, thinking the same as Joe. “And when he does, we can cut him down.”
“Ain’t I ever learnt you boys anythin’?” Jesse scolded. “And then what, after ever’body in the whole town seen you do it? Take to the hills with a marshal’s posse after us?”
“Yeah, but he shot Sonny right there in the dinin’ room, and ever’body seen him do it,” Joe declared. “Marshal didn’t arrest him for that.”
“Sonny called him out,” Jesse said. “There’s a difference. You pick him off when he don’t know you’re waitin’ for him—that’s murder, and they’d most likely hang you for it.”
Confused now, Samson asked, “Well, ain’t we gonna shoot him? Why we been hangin’ around here waitin’ for him to show up, if we ain’t gonna shoot him?”
“We’re gonna shoot him,” his father explained, impatiently. “But we’re gonna wait and follow him outta town where there ain’t no witnesses.”
“What if he ain’t plannin’ to leave anytime soon?” Joe complained. “I’d just as soon step up in front of him and tell him to go for his gun—see how fast he is when he don’t know it’s comin’. Then it would be a face-to-face shootout, and like you said, that ain’t murder. Hell, I’m as fast as Sonny ever was,” he claimed, his boast in part inspired by the whiskey he had just imbibed. He didn’t express it, but he was also thinking about gaining a reputation by gunning down the man who killed Sonny.
Jesse smirked in response to his son’s boastful claim. “You don’t know how fast McCabe is. You ain’t never seen him draw.” He had to admit that it would give him great pleasure to have the people of Two Forks see McCabe shot down by one of his boys.
“You ain’t seen me draw lately, neither,” Joe replied. “I know how fast Sonny was, and I know how fast I am. I’m ready to shoot this sidewinder right now.”
“He is fast, Pa,” Samson said, curious to see if Joe could do it. “He ain’t lyin’.”
The prospect of seeing McCabe cut down before an audience of witnesses was too much for Jesse to pass up. Joe was right, he hadn’t seen how fast he was lately, and he knew both his boys practiced their fast-draw on a daily basis. There had always been a competition among all three of his sons, ever since they were big enough to wear a gun. Sonny had been the first one to actually call a man out, though, and that hadn’t turned out very well. But the fact that Sonny’s death didn’t discourage Joe was enough to cause Jesse to wonder. “All right,” he finally conceded. “We’ll go talk to Mr. McCabe. He owes me for three horses he stole. We’ll see what he has to say for hisself about that. Then, if you think you can take him, that’ll be up to you. If you don’t, we’ll follow him out of town and shoot him down where nobody can see us do it.” They hurried toward Thornton’s store, concerned now that McCabe might finish up his business and leave before they got there.
Inside the store, Cullen was in the process of paying Ronald Thornton for the supplies gathered on the counter when Jesse and his two sons walked in. He had never had a close look at the old man or his two boys, but he knew instinctively who they were, and he had a feeling this was not a chance encounter. He decided to treat it as such until he saw evidence backing up that feeling. He purposefully turned one side toward them while he gathered his purchases up close on the counter, so he could keep an eye on all three. Jesse took only a few steps inside before stopping to stand squarely in front of the door. His sons took a stance, one on each side of him. Thinking the entrance rather odd, Thornton said, “I’ll be with you in a minute, soon as I finish up here.”
“Ain’t no hurry,” Jesse said. “Our business is with Mr. McCabe there.”
Thornton was suddenly struck by the realization that something bad was about to happen. “Clara,” he said to his wife, “you’d best go on back in the storeroom and put that new material away.” When she reacted with an expression of confusion, he said, “Just go on back there.” Seeing he meant it, she quickly left the room.
Up to that point, McCabe had not reacted beyond pulling a twenty-pound sack of flour and a large slab of bacon over to the edge of the counter, preparing to carry them out to his packhorse. “What is your business with me?”
“Maybe it’s about them three horses of mine you stole without payin’ me for ’em,” Jesse snarled.
“I figured we were square on that count. I paid you the same price you paid for them,” Cullen said, guessing Jessie and his boys had most likely stolen them.
“I’m callin’ you out, McCabe,” Joe blurted, unable to contain himself any longer.
“That right?” McCabe asked calmly. “What for?”
“For killin’ my brother,” Joe said. “That’s what for.”
“Who’s your brother?” Cullen asked, purposefully trying to keep the young man’s mind occupied with something other than the actual act of pulling his weapon. He had faced his share of gunfighters in his time and it was fairly easy to read the wide-eyed nervousness in young Joe Tice’s face. The fact that his speech was slurred slightly also suggested that alcohol might be doing most of the talking. Cullen understood the obligation the two brothers felt to avenge Sonny’s death, no matter the circumstances that caused him to be shot. There was a chance, however, that he could talk the boy out of a gunfight, so he decided to give it a try.
“You know who he was,” Joe responded to Cullen’s question. “Sonny Tice. You shot him down in the Two Forks Kitchen.”
“So, you’re Sonny’s brother, huh?” Cullen continued calmly. “Yeah, that was too bad about Sonny. I could see that he wasn’t very fast with a handgun. I think he knew it, too, ’cause he waited till I turned around and then he tried to shoot me in the back. He mighta got me, too, but somebody yelled to warn me, so I didn’t have any choice. I had to shoot him.” He could see that his calm rambling was confusing the young man. He had plainly expected to see a completely different response to his challenge to a face-off. “Yeah, I felt kinda bad about havin’ to shoot poor Sonny,” Cullen went on. “I’ve seen it before; young fellow thinks he’s fast with a gun and ain’t ever seen a man who’s a real gunslinger. You must figure you’re faster than Sonny was, but I don’t know about that. Judgin’ by the way you wear that .44 down so low on your leg, I don’t see how you could be. How many men have you ever pulled iron on?”
“That don’t make no difference,” Joe protested. “That’s my business.” He was plainly flustered by the big man’s casual attitude.
“That’s what I thought,” Cullen said. “This is the first time you’ve ever called anybody out. Well, we’ll try to make it as quick and painless as we can. Let’s take it outside this man’s store, though.” He pulled the sack of flour and the slab of bacon off the counter. “Here,” he said, “you can gimme a hand with these supplies. Grab that coffee and that twist of jerky—save me a trip back in here.”
Clearly confused by this time, Joe wasn’t sure what to do. Accustomed to being ordered around all his young life, he did as McCabe instructed and picked up the sack of coffee and the beef jerky, then started to follow Cullen out the door. Caught in a state of confusion as well, Jesse finally realized that McCabe was talking Joe out of a face-off. “Hold on there! Put them damn sacks down,” he blurted, and pulled his six-shooter when Cullen started to walk past him. It was not quick enough to avoid the heavy sack of flour that smacked against the side of his head, creating a great white cloud that covered him from head to toe when the sack burst open. With his other hand, Cullen slammed his ten-pound slab of bacon across Jesse’s gun hand, causing him to pull the trigger, putting a bullet hole in the slab of side meat. The hand that had held the flour sack now held a Colt .44, and Cullen rapped one swift time across the bridge of Jesse’s nose with it. Stunned, Jesse dropped like a rock.
His two sons stood paralyzed with the shock of seeing their father collapse and Cullen was quick to take advantage of it. “Unbuckle those gun belts, both of you.” With his .44 trained on them, they offered no resistance. After laying his slab of bacon on the bar, Cullen took both belts, then picked up Jesse’s gun. “Pick your pa up and get him out of here. Take him home and he’ll be all right,” he ordered, while covering them with his Colt. “There ain’t gonna be no killin’ here today. And if you’re smart, you’ll just forget about gettin’ even for your brother’s mistake. He made a play that didn’t work out for him. Don’t you make the same mistake.” Still numb with shock from the way the confrontation with McCabe turned upside down, Joe and Samson helped their father to his feet. Jesse, unsteady and confused by the blow to the bridge of his nose, staggered out the door with the support of his sons. They managed to get him up in the saddle and he promptly fell forward to lie on his horse’s neck. Still covered with flour, he looked like a ghost lying there. Watching the process from the boardwalk in front of the store, Cullen said, “I’m gonna leave your weapons with the marshal and tell him to let you have them back tomorrow.” There was no reply from either of the boys and Jesse was still too groggy to respond. Cullen continued to watch them until they rode out the end of the street. It occurred to him then that he hadn’t taken their rifles from their saddles. I hope to hell they don’t think about that, he thought.
“I reckon you’re gonna need some more flour,” Thornton commented, standing in the doorway of the store. “Maybe some bacon, too.”
“Reckon so,” Cullen replied. “Flour, anyway. The bacon looks okay. I’ll just cut that bullet hole out of it—might flavor it up a little bit.”
“I’ll tell you what,” Thornton said. “I won’t charge you for another sack of flour. That coulda been a bad situation back there, and I wanna thank you for preventing a gunfight in my store.”
“’Preciate it,” Cullen said. “Now, I expect I’d better get movin’. I’m takin’ the road outta here to Austin, and that’s the same road they just took to go home. If you don’t mind, you can get me another sack of flour and I’ll take these guns to the marshal while you’re doin’ that.” He started walking down the street at once and called back over his shoulder, “Sorry ’bout the mess I made in your store.”
Still standing in the door, Thornton looked back inside. “Don’t worry about that,” he said, “Clara’s already sweeping it up.”
Marshal Calvin Woods was just in the process of locking his office door as he hurried to investigate the shot he had heard several minutes before. Seeing Cullen approaching, he feared it was to report another killing in his town. When Cullen told him what had taken place, the marshal also expressed his appreciation to him for avoiding a shootout with Jesse Tice and his sons. Cullen left the weapons with him, then returned to the store to tie all his purchases on his packhorse. Ronald Thornton stood outside and watched while he readied his horses to ride. When Cullen stepped up into the saddle, Thornton felt prompted to comment, “It looks like Jesse Tice ain’t gonna let it rest till he either gets you, or you cut him down.”
“It looks that way, doesn’t it?” Cullen replied. “I reckon killin’ a man’s son is a sure way to make him an enemy.” He wheeled the big bay away from the hitching rail and set out for Austin.
Thornton’s wife was waiting for him when he came back in the store. “Well, you don’t know any more about that man than you did before, do ya?” She shook her head impatiently. “You and Leon Armstrong are gonna have to get together to gossip over McCabe’s visit to town today, I suppose,” she said, referring to the many discussions the two had already had, trying to figure out the man’s business. “I’m not sure I like to see him come in the store,” she concluded as she pointed to a bullet hole in the floor. “It seems like everywhere he goes, somebody starts shootin’.”
“In all fairness, hon,” Ronald pointed out, “it’s people shootin’ at him, and not the other way around.”
“I don’t care,” she said. “It liked to scared me to death. I was sure one of us was gonna get killed and right now I’ve gotta go to the house and change my drawers.”
Thinking it not smart to take another chance on a showdown with Jesse and his boys, Cullen nudged Jake into an easy lope as he set out on the road to Austin. He remembered all too well the day he was forced to shoot Sonny Tice. At the marshal’s urging, he had hurried out of town, only to find that the trail to the Tice ranch forked off the road to Austin a couple of miles north of Two Forks. He had managed to pass that trail before they found out he was heading to Austin. It was his intention to do the same today. As he rocked in the saddle to Jake’s easy gait, he kept a sharp eye on the road ahead of him. In a short while, he came to the trail leading off to the west and the Tice ranch. He rode past it with no incident, so he hoped that would be the end of it. Time would tell, he told himself, but he was not going to count on it. He had not only killed Jesse’s son, but what might be worse for a man like Jesse Tice was the fact that he had made a fool of him twice. There was also the matter of three horses Cullen had taken from the ambush site. There ain’t no doubt, he told himself, that old buzzard has plenty of reason to come after me.
It was time to be thinking about some supper by the time Cullen rode into the capital city of Austin, but he decided it best to take care of his horses first. So, he rode past the capitol building to the stable at the end of the street, operated by a man he knew simply as Burnett. Cullen stepped down from the saddle at the stable door. Having seen him ride up, Burnett walked out to meet him. “Mr. McCabe,” he greeted him. “You ain’t got no horses to sell this time,” he said, glancing past Cullen to see only the one packhorse.
“No, I reckon not,” Cullen answered. “Ain’t run across any lately. I’d like to leave these two with you overnight. And I’d like to sleep with ’em, if you don’t charge too much.”
“Sure,” Burnett said with a wide smile. “I reckon I charge a little bit less than the hotel does, unless you want clean sheets.” He chuckled in appreciation for his humor.
“I ’preciate it,” Cullen said. “Maybe you could recommend a good place to get some supper. Last time I was in town, I ate in the dinin’ room of that hotel near the capitol, and it wasn’t to my likin’.”
“You shoulda asked me last time,” Burnett said. “I woulda told you to go to Pot Luck. That’s a little restaurant run by Rose Bettis between here and the capitol building. That’s where I go when I take a notion I don’t wanna cook for myself, the Pot Luck Restaurant.”
“Restaurant,” Cullen repeated. “That sounds kinda fancy.” He thought of the place where Michael O’Brien had taken him to breakfast before and all the diners dressed up in suits and ties. Since Burnett said it was back the way he had just come, he commented, “Sounds like I shoulda noticed it on my way down here.”
Burnett laughed. “Nah, Pot Luck ain’t fancy. It’s anything but. It’s just a little place next to the hardware store. I ain’t surprised you didn’t notice it, but if you’re lookin’ for good food at a fair price, then that’s the place to go.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Cullen said. He followed Burnett into the stables, lea. . .
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