The latest action-packed historical western from national bestselling authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone in which former Pinkerton man Buck Trammel takes up the badge in Wyoming Territory.
Sheriff Buck Trammel is about to learn a cold hard truth about the wild west: When you lock up the biggest, meanest crime lord in town, you’d better throw away the key. . . .
In the world of criminal lawbreakers in Laramie County, Lucien Clay was king. He terrorized the locals, robbed every business in the territory, and ruled the place with a merciless iron fist. Thankfully he’s behind bars now—along with a load of other lowlife prairie rats—thanks to Laramie’s new sheriff, Buck Trammel. Unfortunately, Trammel can only enforce the law while others specialize in working around it: namely, lawyers. And no lawyer is more crooked or corrupt than the belly-crawling snake Clay hired to get him out. By any means possible. . . .
Their breakout plan is simple: The lawyer will wait until midnight. Then he’ll break in to the county jail to bust his client out. He’ll scale the walls, kill the guards, ambush the deputies, and release the prisoner. There’s just one catch: As soon as Clay is freed, the other convicts want out, too. Which sparks total chaos in the prison, creates a distraction for Clay—and unleashes the worst bloodsoaked night of murderous mayhem Buck Trammel has ever witnessed. And will never forget. If he survives. . . .
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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This Man Must Die
William W. Johnstone
“I already warned you once to stay out of here, Sheriff!” The wild-haired, old prospector punctuated his warning with another shot that split the batwing doors of the Tinder Box Saloon, forcing them open. “I told you I ain’t comin’ out of here ’til I’m good and ready. And I ain’t nowhere near ready yet. This here party’s just getting started.”
Sherwood Blake, Trammel’s chief deputy, tried to pull his boss back from harm’s way. “You don’t need to be here, boss. Your place is out there, keeping the people back. Let me and the boys handle this.”
But the sheriff of Laramie County had no intention of going anywhere. “I was the first one here when it started, and I’ll be the last one here when it’s over. Where’d you send the others?”
“I have Johnny Welch and Charlie Root headed around to the back door,” Blake told him. “The rest of our boys are tending to the crowd out front. Figured you wouldn’t want anyone else to wander in here and get hurt.”
“You figured right.” Trammel lowered his Peacemaker as he stole a quick glance inside the Tinder Box Saloon. The place was being kept open while it was being redone by the new owner. Ladders and paint cans were set up throughout the interior.
He caught Ayres in the middle of reloading his pistol. The wild hair poking out from beneath the prospector’s worn slouch hat was long and gray, matching his overgrown beard.
Trammel’s curiosity was rewarded with a rushed shot from Ayres. “I see what you’re doing out there. Can’t say I ever put much stock in all the big talk I’ve heard about you these past few years. About how tough you are. How you always get your man. Like I always said, ‘The bigger they are, the harder they fall.’”
Trammel had known of Verne Ayres, too, if only by his reputation as a talker and a drunk on the rare occasions he came down from the hills around Laramie. He had always been relatively harmless until that day. “This old fool has almost killed me twice. Where’d he learn to shoot like that?”
“No way of telling with Verne,” Blake said. “He never tells the same story about himself twice.”
“I can hear you boys plotting out there,” Ayres hollered. “It’s no use. I’ve got you right where I want you. Just let me have my celebration in peace and I’ll be on my way.”
The man could not only shoot but had excellent hearing. Trammel asked Blake, “Any idea what set him off like this?”
The deputy kept his head low but his Winchester ready as he whispered, “Heard from one of the fellas who ran out of there that Ayres was in the mood to celebrate a big strike. Said he’d finally hit the mother lode and was about to buy drinks for everyone in the place. But the bartender said something that turned his mood dark.”
That was more than Trammel had known. He was on his way back to his office in City Hall when he saw customers running out of the Tinder Box like the place was on fire. Given that Adam Hagen was in the middle of changing the place from a brothel into a respectable hotel, Trammel had figured one of the workers might have accidentally started a blaze.
It was not until he heard the shots that he knew it was not as simple as that.
“Send someone to find the bartender and talk to him. I want to know why Ayres is so worked up. He might be able to tell us something that could calm him down.”
“I’d be glad to, but we can’t do that,” Blake told him. “The bartender is lying behind the bar, right next to Verne. He was the first man Verne shot to start this whole mess rolling. The only one who got shot, too, near as I can tell.”
Trammel figured bartending was getting to be as dangerous as enforcing the law in Laramie these days. The town was bursting at the seams now that Lucien Clay was in jail and Adam Hagen was buying up every property in sight. The town was filled with people looking for a new start and new ways to earn a living off the boom. “Verne must’ve found something big to justify this.”
“He said he found gold,” Blake reported. “Old Verne’s been looking for a strike like this all his life, and now he’s finally found it. Shame he won’t be free long enough to enjoy it.”
Both men ducked when another shot rang out from inside the saloon, punching open the batwing doors beside them once again.
“I can still hear you two schemin’ out there plain as day. Do yourselves a favor and put the thought right out of your mind. There’s no reason for anyone else to get hurt, including either of you. Just let me finish my drinkin’ so I can get on back to my claim.”
Trammel thought he might have a way to getting Ayres to lower his gun. “Is that what this is, Verne? A celebration?”
“It certainly is,” Ayres shouted back. “And I don’t appreciate it being ruined. Not by you and not by this sassy bartender, either.”
“Help me, Sheriff!” a man cried out from behind the bar. “I’m hurt really bad.”
He yelped when Trammel heard Ayres kick him. “And if you don’t want to get hurt worse, you’ll quit your bellyachin’ and let me enjoy this here drink in peace.”
Trammel was glad the bartender was still alive. He had to keep Ayres talking. “I thought this was a fight that got out of hand, not a party, Verne. That changes things.”
“It does?” Ayres called back. “How do you figure it?”
“The bartender’s still alive, so Blake and I don’t have any reason to barge in there and take you in. It’s just a misunderstanding between a bartender and a customer. Happens all the time.”
“Then you boys have no reason to stay out there. Just go about your business and let me leave town on my own steam.”
Trammel could not allow that to happen. “It’s not much of a celebration with you sitting in there all by yourself drinking alone, now is it? If you promise not to shoot, the two of us would like to come in there and join you for a drink. It’s been a while since we’ve had much cause for celebration around here, and we could use the excuse. Who knows? Your good fortune might rub off on us.”
“Sure. And maybe you boys’ll buy me a steak dinner with all the trimmings.” The sheriff’s hopes sank when Ayres laughed. “I didn’t get this old by being that stupid, Trammel. You two are just fine right where you are. And the same goes for whoever you’ve got sneaking around behind this place, too. Prospecting’s a lonely, thirsty business. I found this claim alone and I’ll celebrate it alone. And I don’t aim to allow you or anyone else to swindle me out of it, you hear?”
Trammel was about to ask him what he meant by swindling when he heard another voice come from inside the saloon. “You can hardly call it swindling if it’s legal, Verne.”
Trammel could not believe his rotten luck. It was the man who was renovating the Tinder Box into a respectable hotel.
Adam Hagen, his part-time friend and a full-time nuisance in Laramie. The last man in town who could end this peacefully.
“Speak of the devil and he shall appear,” Verne seethed. “How’d you get in here, you snake? Slithered under the door, I imagine.”
Trammel took a risk that Verne was distracted and peered inside. He found Hagen leaning against the doorway next to the bar. The doorway led out to the front lobby and the stairs up to the rooms.
As usual, he was wearing a red brocade vest and a gleaming Colt pistol on his right hip.
“I was upstairs reviewing plans for the place when I heard the shot,” Hagen said. “How’re you feeling down there, Tom?”
“My head is mighty sore, Mr. Hagen,” the bartender replied.
“See what you went and did, Verne?” Hagen said to the prospector. “You let that nasty temper of yours get the better of you again. We talked about that the last time, or don’t you remember?”
“I remember everything about you, you scoundrel. Every word you say is poison in my ears. And since this is my party, I say we talk about something different for a change.”
Trammel saw Verne gesture toward Hagen with his pistol. “How about we talk about how you tricked me into signing over—”
Hagen drew his Colt and fired twice into Verne’s chest.
Trammel had seen Hagen shoot enough times to know he could have cut him down from much farther away. Being as close as he was, there was no question Ayres was dead before he tumbled backward and stumbled over the fallen bartender.
Trammel quickly rounded into the saloon, followed by Blake.
On the other side of the hotel, Deputies Johnny Welch and Charlie Root burst through the front door. Their rifles were at their shoulders and aimed at Hagen.
Hagen switched his aim to Trammel’s chest. The smoking pistol hung there for a moment too long for the lawman’s comfort. Given that Trammel was over six and a half feet tall, he was difficult to miss and impossible to mistake for anyone else in Laramie. Hagen had clearly seen Trammel and recognized him, too. But the thought of shooting him had entered his mind, if only for a moment.
Hagen slowly lowered his pistol and smiled at the sight of his old friend. “You ought to know better than to barge in on me while I’m working, Buck. I might’ve shot you in the heat of the moment.”
Beside him, Deputy Blake thumbed back the hammer on his rifle. “All the more reason why you ought to tuck that iron away, Hagen.”
The gambler’s smile held. “What’s the matter, Blake? Don’t think I could get those two behind me before I took you, too?”
Blake did not budge. “You’ll be dead before you try.”
“Highly unlikely.” Hagen holstered the weapon and held up his hands as he slowly stepped away from the bar. “Never let it be said that Adam Hagen is one to interfere with the law.” He glanced behind the bar. “You can come out now, Tom. The bad man can’t hurt you anymore.”
Trammel motioned for Welch and Root to lower their Winchesters as a bald man popped up from behind the bar and pulled himself over it. He had expected to see a bullet wound but was surprised that all he had was a nasty gash on his gleaming head.
“I thought you were shot,” Trammel said as the bartender moved to Hagen’s side.
“He would’ve shot me if he had the chance.” Tom pulled off his apron and held it against his bleeding wound. “Verne’s pistol went off when he slammed me in the head with that old Navy Colt of his. He didn’t shoot anyone.”
“Thank heavens for that,” Hagen said as he moved the bartender’s apron and examined the gash for himself. “I imagined the worst when I heard the shot. Stands to reason why I was in such fear for my life.”
Trammel knew that was a lie. He doubted Adam Hagen had ever been afraid of anything in his life. Not when he had a gun on his hip or a rifle in his hands.
Hagen sucked his teeth as he dabbed the apron at Tom’s wound. “Verne got what he deserved for treating you this way. I’d be inclined to swear out a complaint against him if he was still alive, but I suppose he’s beyond all that now.”
“Yeah,” Trammel said. “He’s beyond a lot of things.”
Hagen feigned insult. “That sounds like sarcasm, Buck.”
The sheriff ignored him as he walked over to the bar and peered over the side. He saw Verne Ayres crumpled on the floor. Two neat holes still smoldering over his heart. His dead eyes fixed on the bare ceiling of the saloon. His newfound luck had clearly run out.
“Blake, you’d best get Tom over to a doctor to get that wound cleaned up. Doc Morrison’s place is closest. Stay with him until he’s been tended to, then get a statement from him for the record.”
To his deputies still in the hotel lobby, he said, “Johnny and Charlie, I want you and the others to get statements from anyone else who was in here when it happened. I know the county attorney will want to have all the facts he can muster for his file. Tell everyone to stay outside until I tell them they can come in.”
The deputies went off to carry out their respective assignments, paying Hagen particular attention as they passed him. Trammel knew his men did not trust the gambler, and they were right to be cautious.
He waited until Blake had helped the bartender leave before telling Hagen, “You and me are going to have a talk.”
Hagen looked down at Trammel’s pistol, which was still at his side. “I put mine away, Buck. It’s only proper for you to do the same.”
Trammel tucked the Peacemaker into the holster under his arm.
“That’s better. There are so many guns around town these days. It’s getting so a man needs to shoot his way across the street.”
Trammel ignored the exaggeration. “The town would be a whole lot quieter if you weren’t armed.”
Hagen gestured to the side of Trammel’s nose. “That scar of yours seems to fade more with each passing week. You wear it well. Makes you look even meaner than you already did, not that anyone could ever accuse you of having a peaceful disposition.”
Trammel fought the urge to touch the long scar that ran down his face along the side of his nose. He had received it when Major John Stanton had tried to get away from him a few months back. The assassin had fallen from a roof for his trouble and later died in prison of his injuries.
The scar served as a daily reminder to Trammel of how close he had come to losing his life.
“And that shoulder holster you still insist on wearing,” Hagen remarked as he moved behind the bar and grabbed a bottle of whiskey. “When are you going to break down and wear your gun on your hip like a true Westerner? You’ve been out here long enough. Time to adapt a little to our ways.”
“Like shooting harmless old prospectors in a saloon?”
“Calling Verne harmless is awfully generous of you, especially after how he brained poor Tom with that Colt of his.” Hagen placed two glasses on the bar and picked up a bottle of whiskey. “I can’t have my people treated so poorly. I wouldn’t get anyone of quality to work for me if word spread that I let my employees get slapped around by some drunk.”
“That isn’t why you shot him, and you know it.”
Hagen sighed. “But I suppose violence has a tendency to follow us around wherever we go, doesn’t it? Wichita. Blackstone, and now here in Laramie. The names of the towns might change, but the circumstances remain the same. You still have a position of authority and I’m still forced to dispatch undesirables.”
Trammel watched him place two glasses on the bar as if he was about to perform a magic trick. There was always an elegant air about anything he did, but Trammel had known him too long to believe the façade. His fair hair had already begun to turn white in places, though he was just north of thirty. He kept his beard trimmed and close to his pale skin. He was a shade over six feet tall and managed to remain lean despite a strong appetite for hard drinking and late nights. His light eyes were set deeper than they had been when they first met back in Kansas. Harder, too.
Trammel thought the years had been kind to Adam Hagen in their own way, but not as kind as they might have been, and far kinder than he deserved.
“You didn’t have to kill Verne, Adam.”
“Of course I did.” Hagen poured them a good amount of cheap whiskey. “I was in mortal fear of my life. He pointed his gun at me. I saw you watching the whole thing from the doorway. You saw it with your own two eyes. It’s a miracle I wasn’t killed.”
Trammel did not look down at the glass Hagen slid toward him. “You could’ve just as easily backhanded him as shoot him.”
“And risk poor Tom’s life while a drunken lunatic was raving and pointing his gun all over the place? You think too much of my bravery, old friend.”
Hagen set the bottle on the bar and reached for his glass, but Trammel grabbed his wrist before he could take hold of it. “You shot him for a reason.”
The gambler’s eyes narrowed with just a hint of spite. “I didn’t claim to shoot him by accident, Steve. And we both know I don’t like being handled, not even by my friends.”
Trammel released him with a shove. “I heard what he said to you right before you shot him. Something about being swindled.”
Hagen shrugged as he took his glass in hand. “The ravings of an old drunk blind with rage and riding high on glory. When Ayers wasn’t up in the hills scraping at dirt, he was claiming someone swindled him. Before me, he accused Lucien Clay of robbing him blind, as if the old sot ever had anything worth stealing. You’ve been out here long enough to know how those old prospectors are. Always afraid that someone’s trying to jump their claim on the off chance they manage to pull something of quality out of the ground. You’ve seen dozens of men like Ayres come and go. I’m from these parts, so I’ve seen hundreds. They’re as common as horseflies in a stable.”
He looked down at the body behind the bar and raised a toast. “To your memory, you old rat. I hope your find was as prosperous as you claim.”
Hagen took a healthy swallow of whiskey but was careful not to drain the glass. Trammel knew Hagen was always measured in everything he did. How he drank. How he gambled. How he spent his money and how he made it.
And how he killed. Trammel had never known him to do anything without a reason. He never surrendered reason to emotion, not even when he watched Hagen wage a pitched battle with his family for control of their fortune.
But when Hagen found himself on the losing end, his family ran him out of Blackstone for his trouble. With his brother Caleb and Lucien Clay now in prison for murder, Laramie was left wide open for a man of Adam Hagen’s cunning and resources. He was already well underway to building a new empire of whiskey and blood. A piece of a gold claim would only help him reach his aims that much quicker.
Trammel stood upright so his size advantage over Hagen was even more pronounced. “You’re not leaving here until you tell me why Ayres thought you were swindling him. And if you lie, I’m going to lose patience.”
“Look at you, rearing up on your hind legs like an old grizzly.” Hagen set his glass on the bar and tried to rub some circulation back into his wrist. “City living hasn’t softened you up as much as I’d hoped. How do you manage to stay so strong?”
“I was born in Manhattan, remember? Laramie barely ranks as a neighborhood where I’m from. Quit stalling and answer my question.”
Hagen ran his tongue along the inside of his mouth as he thought it over. “Are you asking me as a friend or as the sheriff of Laramie?”
Trammel knew better than to corner Hagen. If he tried to make this official, he would spend the rest of the afternoon dancing around the question in a blur of words. Any one of the lawyers who had recently moved into town would trip over themselves to defend him in court. Trammel was more interested in the truth than a fight. “I just want to know the truth. Let’s leave titles out of it for now.”
Hagen considered it before saying, “Fair enough. In that case, I’ll tell you. About a month ago, the newly departed Mr. Ayres down there found himself having a particularly bad run of luck at my blackjack table over at the Emerald Isle. You remember the dump. It used to be Lucien Clay’s place before I took it over.”
Trammel did not need to be reminded of it, nor of Hagen’s rapid assumption of Clay’s role as the biggest criminal of Laramie now that Clay was in jail for murder. Hagen might have changed the name and fixed up the place, but it was still a den of iniquity as far as he was concerned. “Go on.”
“Ayres was convinced his luck was due to turn around. He practically begged me for a some credit, but that was impossible since he was already into me for a considerable sum. Call me a softhearted fool if you wish, but there was something about his desperation that touched me.” He tapped the center of his vest. “Right here.”
“If you’re pointing to your wallet, I’ll believe it.” Trammel could guess the rest and decided to save them both a lot of time by getting to the point. “You made him sign over his claim to you in exchange for a new line of credit, didn’t you?”
Hagen held up a finger. “I only took half. I’m not entirely without scruples. And, as fortune would have it, Ayres wound up going on something of a winning streak. Not enough to entirely erase his debt to me, of course, but more than I had anticipated.”
Hagen let out a dramatic sigh as he picked up his glass again. “But I still hold the note, and now that Ayres has departed this mortal coil, I suppose I’m the sole owner of his claim. Alas, the burdens of being the executor of his estate.”
“A claim that sounds like it just paid off,” Trammel said.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Hagen said. “Verne Ayres was a better gambler than a prospector. He wouldn’t know the difference between fool’s gold and the genuine article if it leaped out of the ground and into his pocket.” He offered another toast down to the corpse. “Sorry, old man, but I guess this is one claim that didn’t pan out in your favor.”
Trammel fought the urge to slap the drink out of Hagen’s hand, pull him across the bar, and throw him in jail. He had murdered Verne Ayres just as sure as if he had followed him into a dark alley one night and knifed him to death.
But it was not Hagen’s swindling that irked Trammel. Ayres knew the risk of going into debt with a man like Hagen. No one had forced him to walk into his gambling den that night. No one had forced him to sign over his claim to pay for one more turn of the cards. Trammel knew that was where Adam Hagen’s true evil lay. He always found a way to use a man’s weaknesses against him for his own benefit.
And it was all legal, even if it was not right. “All the money you’ve got, and you still feel the need to rip off an old grubber like Ayres.”
Hagen’s eyes slid over to Trammel before the glass touched his lips. “Careful, Buck. I don’t respond well to criticism of my character.”
But Trammel was not in a careful mood. He had just watched a man get gunned down over a claim that probably amounted to spare change in Hagen’s deep pockets. “When is enough going to be enough for you, Adam? You ruined your father and burned his house to the ground. Your brother Caleb is over in City Hall, rotting in the next cell over from Lucien Clay. You’re already well on your way to running most of Laramie. You’ll be bigger than Clay ever was before long, if you’re not already. What more do you want?”
Hagen appeared to think it over as he finally took his drink. He seemed to have made up his mind when he set the glass back on the bar. “More. I want more.”
“More of what?”
“I don’t honestly know,” Hagen said. “I don’t know what it is, or if there’ll ever be enough, but whatever it is, I want more of it. Land. Gold. Property. Businesses. Women. Today it’s this place. Tomorrow it might be something else. Works of art, perhaps. A bigger house or another empire to bring to its knees. All I know is that if it’s worth having, I want it. As much of it as I can get. And I’m all too willing to do anything to get it.”
Hagen seemed to remember himself and cast off the heavy words with another elegant shrug as he poured himself another drink. “Maybe one day I’ll be satisfied, but today, old friend, is not that day.”
No, Trammel imagined it was not. But he also knew the day would come sooner rather than later when Adam Hagen came up against something or someone he could not have. A man he could not beat. Something he could not buy at any price. And when he found it, he would pursue it until it finally destroyed him and cost him everything he had.
And once he was ruined, he would gladly start over, for Trammel knew that, for men like Hagen, having something was never quite as sweet as chasing it.
And when that day finally came, Buck Trammel would be there to stop him, or make him pay for all the harm he had done in his life.
He watched Hagen swirl the whiskey in his glass. “I trust none of these details about my Ayers claim will be mentioned in whatever report you give to Judge Spicer?”
“The judge is a plain man,” Trammel said. “He’s only interested in having me testify to what I see, not what I think, or even what I know. Ayers was armed. He had assaulted the bartender and he did point his pistol in your general direction when you shot him. It was legal, but that doesn’t . . .
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