Welcome to the West's most dangerous town. In the electrifying new series from America's bestelling western writers, Marshal Bob Hatfield is fighting back against a tide of chaos and murderwith every weapon they can fire . . .
In the shadow of the Prophecy Mountains, the ramshackle boomtown of Rattlesnake Wells draws schemers, predators, and desperate pilgrims. As for the law, that's the town marshal, a former Texas outlaw trying to make a new life for himself. ButSundown Bob Hatfield knows a man who's slick on the draw can't escape trouble for long. In Rattlesnake Wells, you fight fire with fireand a new one has just exploded.
An enterprising saloon owner stages a shooting contest with a matched pair of gold-plated revolvers as first prize. But some contestants don't play by the rules, and these aren't just any old gold-plated guns. Now the guns are gone, innocent hostages have been taken for a violent ride, and a chase is on into the vast Wyoming wildernesswhere a terrifying dark secret will be exposed, much blood will be spilled, and a fast-gun marshal will bring the real outlaws to their knees . . .
About the Author
William W. Johnstone is the USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of over 300 books, including PREACHER, THE LAST MOUNTAIN MAN, LUKE JENSEN BOUNTY HUNTER, FLINTLOCK, SAVAGE TEXAS, MATT JENSEN, THE LAST MOUNTAIN MAN; THE FAMILY JENSEN, SIDEWINDERS, and SHAWN O’BRIEN TOWN TAMER. His thrillers include Phoenix Rising, Home Invasion, The Blood of Patriots, The Bleeding Edge, and Suicide Mission. Visit his website at www.williamjohnstone.net or by email at email@example.com.
Being the all-around assistant, typist, researcher, and fact checker to one of the most popular western authors of all time, J.A. Johnstone learned from the master, Uncle William W. Johnstone.
He began tutoring J.A. at an early age. After-school hours were often spent retyping manuscripts or researching his massive American Western history library as well as the more modern wars and conflicts. J.A. worked hard—and learned.
“Every day with Bill was an adventure story in itself. Bill taught me all he could about the art of storytelling. ‘Keep the historical facts accurate,’ he would say. ‘Remember the readers, and as your grandfather once told me, I am telling you now: be the best J.A. Johnstone you can be.’”
Read an Excerpt
Things had been relatively peaceful in Rattlesnake Wells, Wyoming. In recent days there were the usual quota of saloon brawls, a few incidents of drunks discharging firearms mainly to see folks scatter, and a domestic squabble or two. But nothing more serious than that.
Not to say, however, there wasn't still an undercurrent of excitement running through the town, due primarily to the announced opening of a spanking brand- new saloon in the New Town section on the north end of the city.
A saloon, especially in that part of town, wasn't particularly newsworthy in and of itself. The difference in this case was the much-ballyhooed opulence of the new business — as opposed to the quickly thrown-up tent saloons and gambling joints currently blighting the boom area as a result of the gold strike up in the Prophecy Mountains.
But, despite the general excitement, certain folks around town were neither happy nor impressed by what they were hearing — opulence be damned.
"It ain't that I mind facing tough competition," declared Mike Bullock, owner of the cleverly named Bullock's Saloon. "Hell, I've done that plenty of times before, in plenty of different places." He paused, his broad face bunching into a scowl. "But this Gafford character is starting to really get under my skin. I mean, a whole brand-new building, a fancy la-di-da name, an imported bar, even dance hall girls ... you'd think that oughta be about enough, wouldn't you? But now this" — Bullock held up a poster emblazoned with large letters and colorful images and gave it a rattling shake — "this is pushing things too blasted far, says I!"
The paper Bullock was waving in the faces of Marshal Bob Hatfield and Maudie Sartain was an advertising flyer heralding the scheduled grand opening of the new saloon. The flyer featured all of the things Bullock had just mentioned in his agitated spiel, but with a bit more detail — like how the name of the new establishment would be the Crystal Diamond; how its main hall would feature an ornate cherrywood bar and a spectacular crystal chandelier both specially delivered all the way from San Francisco; and how the highlight of each evening's entertainment would be Miss Alora Dane and her Diamond Dollies performing dazzling song-and-dance routines.
But the real focal point of the flyer — the "this" that seemed to have Bullock on the brink of blowing his stack — was the event newly announced to kick off the Crystal Diamond's big opening. It was to be a shooting competition, open to all comers, offering as the first prize a matched set of gold-plated pistols with diamond-encrusted grips. Adding to the lure of the words, a picture of the pistols was prominently displayed.
"Gafford sure knows how to draw interest — you can't deny him that," said Maudie.
"I saw some of those flyers earlier. They're going up all over town," said the marshal. "I just hope that, in the process of drawing interest, those jeweled pistols don't also draw a heap of trouble. You combine a prize like that with a bunch of shooters and shootin' irons and a saloonful of who-hit-John, you got the makings for just about anything."
"There you go!" exclaimed Bullock, slapping the flyer down onto the table and pointing a thick finger at the marshal. "You'd be well within your rights to shut the whole shindig down, says I, as a public nuisance almost certain to start a riot."
Bob shook his head. "Come on, Mike. You can't be serious."
"You said yourself — "
"I said there'd be the makings of trouble. I didn't say it was a certainty or a guarantee, and therefore it's not something I can take legal action against. Comes right down to it, your place here — not to mention any one of the tent saloons or gambling joints along Gold Avenue — has got the same makings on just about any night of the week." Bob shrugged. "Minus the jeweled pistols and with smaller, more manageable crowds, that's all."
This discussion was taking place at a rear table in Bullock's Saloon, the oldest and most popular drinking establishment in Rattlesnake Wells. Except for a quartet of old-timers who sat quietly smoking and nursing their drinks as they played cards at a table toward the center of the room, the place was empty during this lull period in the middle of a weekday afternoon.
Mike Bullock was a balding, bullet-headed Irishman, only average in height but with a beer keg torso and thick, almost apelike arms ending in mallet-sized fists that had ended more than a few arguments and helped to quell many a brawl. Quick as his temper and fists were, however, he could also at times be bighearted and generous to a fault.
Maudie Sartain was his dependable right hand who helped with the day-to-day running of things — her duties ranging the gamut from tending bar when needed to ordering stock to serving as a sort of house mother to the hostesses Bullock employed to serve drinks and otherwise entertain male customers. A curvaceous, jet-haired beauty who made a habit of wearing dresses that proudly displayed ample cleavage, she'd long ago mastered the fine art of flirting without promising too much or allowing things to get out of hand. When some hombres got the wrong idea and tried to get too friendly with their hands because they were either too drunk or just plain too dumb, Maudie had also mastered the sharp-tongued reprimand or, if that wasn't enough, a sharp elbow where it would do the most good.
Tall, solid, square-shouldered Bob Hatfield — called "Sundown Bob" by some, due to the flaming red color of his hair — in addition to looking in on all local businesses from time to time in his role as town marshal, made particularly frequent stops at Bullock's. It wasn't that the marshal was a heavy drinker or anything. He hardly imbibed at all, in fact, and especially not when on duty. He simply enjoyed the company of Mike and Maudie. Usually when he stopped in and lingered for any amount of time, he'd have a cup or two of Maudie's excellent coffee, as opposed to the dreadful brew he and his deputies made at the marshal's office, or sometimes some of the tea that she herself preferred.
Such was the case today, in fact, as he found himself sipping from a new blend that Maudie had insisted he try. It wasn't bad, but neither was it something he'd make a point of requesting the next time he came around. Yet, even at that, it was still better than what was waiting in the pot back at his office.
"Yeah, let Gafford go ahead and have his silly contest and draw his big, splashy crowd," grumbled Bullock, continuing his bitter lament. "Let's see how long all that lasts after the novelty has worn off. The ranchers and miners in these parts are hardworking men who want a fair measure to their drinks and a friendly atmosphere where they can bend an elbow, lay down a few cards in an honest game, and maybe pat a hostess on the bottom once in a while. They don't need all the hoopla of glittery chandeliers and high-kickin' dancing girls while they're being served watered-down drinks at jacked-up prices.
"What's more, when the Prophecies have coughed out their last gasp of gold dust — like always happens in booms like the one we're going through — then how long do you think August Gafford and his Crystal Claptrap will even be around? I was here before the first vein was tapped up in those mountains and I'll still be here when the last pickax is thrown down in frustration. Folks will remember that, and will keep it in mind. You'll see."
It was true enough that Rattlesnake Wells — so named for the nearby spring-fed wells that had originally caused pioneers traveling through this part of Wyoming on the Oregon Trail to branch off from their intended destination and instead settle right here, once they'd gotten rid of the numerous rattlesnake nests also to be found in the area — was undergoing a gold boom. In the space of less than four years, ever since the yellow ore had been found in the Prophecy Mountains just to the northwest, what had once been a quiet community serving surrounding cattle and horse ranches and a few farms, more than doubled in population and sprawl.
In addition to being a long-standing stop on the Rawlins-to-Casper stagecoach run, a railroad spur had also been added. The original layout of the town, running at a southwest-to-northeast angle and nowadays referred to as "Old Town," had stayed solid and largely unchanged. The growth sprawl, running off the northern point of Old Town and extending at an angle to the northwest, pointing toward the Prophecy Mountains, naturally enough came to be called "New Town." Its main drag was dubbed Gold Avenue, and lining it was every kind of hastily slapped-together structure one could imagine. Shacks and tents were predominant. Occupying these was a span of businesses that included shot-and-a-beer saloons, greasy spoon eateries, gambling dens, cut-rate equipment dealers, by-the-night sleeping cots, and whore cribs. And the clientele for these businesses included every kind of easy profit seeker from swindlers and pickpockets to card sharps and pimps pushing their exclusive string of soiled doves.
It was hardly the kind of growth spurt that could be called uplifting for the original community. But along with the undesirables and the trash that poured in, so did a lot of money. And enough of that spilled over into Old Town to make the rest tolerable.
And now, for better or worse, right in the heart of the New Town sprawl, entrepreneur August Gafford would soon be opening his gaudy new saloon, the Crystal Diamond.
"Of course there are going to be customers who'll stay loyal to our saloon," said Maudie, her words aiming to soothe and reassure. "But you're also right in thinking that the novelty of Gafford's place will, in the beginning, most likely attract some of them to at least take a look and probably even throw back a drink or two."
"Any who do that, I don't care if they come back in here or not," declared Bullock, his scowl returning even fiercer than before. "In fact, I'd just as soon they didn't!"
"Now you're sounding grumpy and stubborn and, frankly, a little ridiculous," Maudie told him, demonstrating her standing with Bullock as being one of less than a handful of people who could get away with saying something like that to him. "What are you going to do — post a spy out front of the Crystal Diamond and mark off any of our regular customers who are seen going inside?"
"I'll know. I'll hear things."
"People have a natural inclination, not to mention a right, to be curious about something new and different. And that includes me." Maudie thrust out her chin defiantly. "I might want to take a look inside Gafford's place myself, once it opens. If I do, will you bar me from coming back in here?"
"Now who's being ridiculous?" Bullock growled in frustration. He looked plaintively over at Bob. "See what I have to put up with? Not only do I have that silk-tongued, fancy-pants Gafford trying to horn in on my business and steal my customers, now I've got treason threatened from within my ranks at the very highest level."
Bob couldn't keep one side of his mouth from curving up in a lazy grin. "Seems to me, Mike," he said, "that the biggest threat you're under right at the moment is the way you're gonna blow a gasket if you don't calm down. You said yourself how you've faced tough competition before and made it through. So you will again. Sure, the novelty of the Crystal Diamond is gonna cost you a few customers for a while. But, before long, things will level out and I bet you'll hardly notice the difference. My guess is that the ones who've got the biggest worry about being hurt by Gafford are the tent saloons and gambling dives currently pulling in business along Gold Avenue."
Bullock suddenly looked thoughtful and much of the tension seemed to ease out of him. "You really think so?"
"Stands to reason, don't it?" Bob said, aiming to add to the calmed-down reaction he'd already gotten. "If Gafford keeps his prices fair and can offer a glitzy setting complete with dancing girls and the rest, who with any sense would want to keep doing his drinking or gambling in a musty, mud-bottomed tent when he can walk a few doors up the street and do the same thing in so much better surroundings?"
"Sounds to me like those are some pretty good points," said Maudie.
Bullock heaved a big sigh. "Yeah, I guess they are ... I guess, too, that I sometimes let myself get more riled up over things than I probably should."
"You think so?" Maudie responded, arching one finely penciled brow and putting an unmistakable dose of sarcasm in her tone.
"Okay, okay. I admitted it, didn't I? No need to rub it in." Bullock twisted his mouth ruefully. "But there's something about that Gafford skunk that just plain rubs me wrong, so don't be surprised if I let him get me worked up all over again before this is through."
Maudie smiled. "I'd only be surprised if you didn't get worked up over something on a regular basis. That would cause me to be seriously worried about you."
Bullock rolled his eyes and then cut his gaze to Bob. "See what I mean? She never lets up."
"And if I did," Maudie told him, "you'd be the one with something to worry about."
Speaking of something to perhaps worry about, right then was when three rough-edged hombres came crowding through the batwings, loudly stomping dust and caked mud as they boiled toward the bar like a pack of parched coyotes. And it didn't take long before one of them — the leader, judging by the way the other two held back and let him do most of the mouth-running — started in with some howling.
"Whooeee!" he cut loose. "I do declare this is one fine-lookin' establishment. I gotta admit, however, to bein' a mite perplexed. Is this really a saloon? Or is it a church? I know what the sign said outside and I know what it kinda looks like in here ... but it's so dadgum peaceful and quiet, way more so than any other saloon I've ever been in, that I just can't be sure."
The one making the noise and drawing obliging snickers from his two companions was a tall, rawboned specimen who might have been almost handsome before his nose got broken and reset so many times that it now looked like it had been put back together out of mismatched pieces. He had a narrow, V-shaped face with knife-edge cheekbones and small, yellowed teeth.
One of his pards was a dumpy Mexican with a round brown face, a drooping mustache, and greasy, curly hair spilling out from under the front of his sombrero and dangling down in the middle of his forehead. The other was a bland-looking individual, average in every detail except for a set of perfectly shaped and razored sideburns that looked as incongruous on his dirt-streaked, beard-stubbled face as a pair of ivory grips on a rusted pistol.
All three were clad in worn, dust-caked range garb that marked them as having likely been wranglers in the not-too-distant past. All wore guns holstered on their hips and Broken Nose, in particular, carried himself in a way that Bob immediately recognized as the mark of someone who fancied himself pretty handy with a shootin' iron. That, in turn, made all three of them worth keeping an eye on as the source for potential trouble.
Maudie sensed the same thing, as evidenced by her remark, "I got a feeling that here are three hombres we'd wish as customers for the Crystal Diamond." Even as she was saying this, however, she was rising up to go perform bartending duties for the trio.
In the meantime, as he leaned back against the bar, resting his elbows on the edge and hooking a boot heel over the brass rail along the base, Broken Nose focused on the near table where the four oldsters continued quietly playing cards. Addressing them, he said, "Hey, you bunch of grampaws. Any one of you happen to be a bartender or a priest? That might help me figure out this puzzlement I got."
Once again, his companions snickered and snorted at his great wit.
But one of the card players, Delbert Carey, a former soldier and railroad worker who still had more than a little bark on him, was neither impressed by Broken Nose's brand of humor nor intimidated by his loud mouth. Without looking around from the cards fanned out in his hand, he said indifferently, "What we are, you rather impertinent young pup, is of no consequence to you. And your so-called puzzlement, I assure you, is of equally little concern to us."
Broken Nose's reaction to this response was at first one of surprise, his eyebrows lifting high. But then, just as quickly, the brows came back down and knitted tightly above a glare aimed at Carey's back.
"Say now," he said. "You're a sassy old goat, ain't you?"
Carey ignored him.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Rattlesnake Wells, Wyoming Frontier of Violence"
Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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