DAY OF THE AVENGER
U.S. Deputy Marshal Will Tanner earned his badge the old-fashioned way. He shot the bad guys, saved the good guys, and won the fear and respect of everyone in between. That’s how legends are born. But when he visits a friend at his ranch and ends up confronting a trigger-happy horse thief, Will earns the wrath of the deadliest, lowlife killers west of the Mississippi. This is how legends die . . .
Turns out Will Tanner is nothing but a moving target on a blood-soaked trail of revenge. From a barroom shootout in Texas, to a Chickasaw showdown in Oklahoma, to a dangerous encounter with a hellion named Hannah, Deputy Marshal Tanner has his hands full, his finger on the trigger—and his life on the line . . .
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Will tanner, U.S. Deputy marshal
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
It was a cold December day when Mike Lynch walked out of the gate at Arkansas State Prison in Little Rock. Outside, he turned to look back at the stone walls that had imprisoned him for the past decade. They had been long, hard years of bitter regret, not for the life of lawlessness he had lived, but for the fact that he had been caught. "You're a free man now," said Ed Todd, the guard who had escorted Mike to the gate. "Did that time locked up inside teach you anything?" There was no attempt to hide the sarcasm in the question. Todd was one of the older guards at the prison. He had been among the early hires, so he had seen a lot of convicts released. Most of them returned to the life of crime that landed them in prison in the first place. He didn't expect much different from this one.
"Yeah, I learned somethin'," Mike Lynch answered. "I learned I'd better be more careful, so I don't get caught next time." He flipped the collar of the ill-fitting coat up against the cold breeze that swept across the stone wall, and pulled the floppy, wide-brimmed wool felt hat he had been issued down firmly on his head.
"Huh," Todd grunted scornfully. "I give you six months, maybe less, you'll be back."
"The hell I will," Lynch shot back. "And you'd best say a little prayer for the lawman that tries to bring me in."
"That's awful big talk for a man just set free," Todd said. "Matter of fact, a judge might take that to be a threat against an officer of the law. Maybe I might take you back inside."
Lynch knew the guard was bluffing, amusing himself by trying to get his goat. "I expect you'd better look out your mouth don't make a claim your body can't back up, old man. You ain't got nobody to help you outside that wall."
Todd smirked in contempt for the brash ex-convict. "Big talk, prison ain't learned you nothin' a-tall, has it? Where you headed now?"
"Wherever the hell I want," Lynch said.
Todd shook his head. "Probably go straight to a saloon and spend that little bit of money the state gave you." Tired of bantering with the cocksure ex-convict, he turned and walked back in the gate.
"That's a good idea, Todd," Lynch called after him. "I think I'll go find me a saloon." A drink of whiskey was not his first priority, but he had to admit it wasn't far down the list. The problem was, as Todd had mentioned, he was seriously short of money. On his release, he was given a suit of clothes and $10, then shown the door. He was a free man, but one on foot with over three hundred miles to get where he was going. He needed a horse and a gun for sure if he was going to make it all the way to Tishomingo in Oklahoma Indian Territory. That's where his father sent word that he would meet him.
Jack Lynch, known more commonly as Scorpion Jack by the outlaws he rode with, had managed to stay one step ahead of the law in Colorado and Kansas for the past several years. He could not risk a return to Arkansas after he was charged with the murder of a U.S. Deputy Marshal and the two possemen with him. So he sent word for his son to make his way to a trading post he was sure to remember. It wasn't necessary to name the place, for when Mike was a boy, he had spent several months with his father at Lem Stark's place on Blue River in Indian Territory. Although it had been some time since Jack Lynch and his men had escaped from Arkansas, he was under no impression that the U.S. Marshals Service had given up on capturing him. For that reason, Mike was very much aware of the probability that he might pick up a tail when he left prison, hoping he might lead them to his father. With that in mind, he started down the road, heading for Fort Smith and the Oklahoma border.
* * *
The sun was still hovering over the horizon when Mike came upon what appeared to be a camp on the bank of a creek. He paused to look it over before proceeding. There was apparently only one person and one horse beside the dark water of the creek. There had been no attempt to make the camp out of sight of the common road, and there was a big campfire blazing away. A traveler on the road would hardly miss it. Mike couldn't help grinning at the opportunity presented him. I reckon I ain't gonna go without some coffee and supper tonight after all, he thought. "Hello, the camp," he called out when he was still a few dozen yards away. "You got an extra cup of coffee for a tired traveler?"
"Why, sure, friend," a voice came back. "Come on in." The man got up from where he had been sitting and backed away a little from the firelight.
Mike took a good look around as he left the road and walked the short distance along the bank to the fire. He felt satisfied that the man was alone, and he didn't seem overly cautious when a stranger on foot suddenly appeared on the road. That's because he's been sitting here waiting for me to show up. The thought struck him suddenly. What if, instead of the tail he was expecting, the man was a deputy marshal, hoping to pump him for information on where he was heading and hoping he would lead him to his father. He would have had to leapfrog around him to arrange this casual encounter. "I sure do appreciate the hospitality," Mike said. "I'm a little short of supplies right now." He glanced at the man's horse as he walked past it. It was a well-built sorrel with a broad chest and strong legs. A typical sign of a deputy marshal, he thought. They always ride a good horse.
"My name's Bob Hardy," the man said. "Be glad to share some coffee with you, and some grub, too." He stepped back in a little closer to the fire. "Where you headed? On foot like you are, have you got far to go?"
"A ways yet," Mike said.
"Well, set yourself down and help me eat some of this bacon and hardtack," Hardy said. "Grab that extra tin plate there."
Smug in the satisfaction that he could see through the lawman's clumsy attempt to set him at ease, Mike helped himself to the generous amount of sowbelly in the frying pan. "You cooked up a lot of bacon," he couldn't resist commenting. "Was you expectin' company, or do you just have a big appetite?"
Deputy Marshal Bob Hardy hesitated a moment before answering when he realized that it might seem like more than a man would have fried for himself. "No, I reckon I wasn't thinkin' when I sliced off that meat." He forced a chuckle. "But ain't it lucky I did?"
"You're campin' a little early," Mike went on. "It'll be a couple of hours before hard dark. I wasn't lookin' to stop for the night for a while yet myself."
"It is a might early," Hardy allowed. "But I needed to stop and rest my horse, so I figured I might as well make camp."
Mike glanced at the sorrel again, thinking the horse didn't appear to be tired at all. You might as well open your coat and show me that badge you're wearing, he thought. "Which way you headed?" he asked instead.
"I was headed toward Little Rock," Hardy said. "But I ain't set on nowhere in particular. What about you? You ain't never said where you're goin'. Must not be far, since you're walkin'." The deputy was hoping to find out that Mike was meeting someone close by.
"It's a little ways yet, like I said," Mike replied. "I'm on foot, without no supplies because I had a little piece of bad luck a while back. But it ain't too far to walk when a man's got a good horse and supplies waitin' for him down the road."
This garnered Hardy's interest right away. "Well, that sounds like you ain't expectin' to be walkin' much farther. How long you figure it'll take? Maybe I can give you a ride wherever it is you're goin'."
"'Preciate it, but you said you was headin' to Little Rock. I'm headin' toward Fort Smith."
"No trouble a-tall," Hardy hurriedly replied. "Like I said, I ain't particular right now which direction I'm headin' in."
If there had been any doubts about the intentions of his host, Hardy's eagerness to help him dispelled them. "I thank you very much, Mr. Hardy," Mike said. "But I reckon it's best if I just go on by myself. I've gotta cut off the road up ahead to get to a friend's place, and he's a peculiar feller. He's liable to take a shot at a stranger on a horse ridin' down through the trees." He flashed a wide grin at Hardy. "I wouldn't want nothin' like that to happen to a friendly feller like yourself." He ate the last of his bacon and gulped the remainder of his coffee, then got to his feet. "Matter of fact, I reckon if I don't set around this fire any longer, I can make it to my friend's cabin before it gets too dark to see. So I'd best be gettin' along."
"I reckon you know what's best," Hardy said. "Hope everything's gonna turn out like you expect."
"Thank you, sir," Mike replied respectfully. "I'm pretty sure it will." He took the hand Hardy offered, thanked him again for the coffee, and headed back along the creek to the road, satisfied that he had the lawman hooked like a fish.
As he continued down the road, the daylight began to fade rapidly as evening set in. His concern was that it might become too dark for Hardy to follow him if he didn't find a good ambush spot before long. A quarter of a mile farther on he came upon the perfect place. The road took a sharp turn at the base of a low ridge covered with pines. Some distance beyond the turn, he discovered a game trail that crossed the road and led back toward the ridge. It was made to order for what he intended. He almost laughed at the thought. The path could well appear to lead to a cabin or a camp on the far side of the ridge. Now he had to make sure the deputy saw him leave the road to follow the game trail. He glanced back toward the curve behind him. There was no sign of Hardy. He hadn't reached the turn yet, or he was hiding while he watched him. Mike wasn't sure how much of a gap the deputy had maintained, but it couldn't have been very far, because of the poor light. And it was getting poorer every minute. He decided Hardy had to be watching him, so he paused before the game trail and pretended to look up and down the road, as if making sure no one saw him. Then he hurried along the narrow path and disappeared into the pines.
Un-huh, Hardy thought as he watched the ex-convict hesitating before leaving the road. If I had waited much longer, I might have lost him in the dark. He remained where he was for a couple of minutes more so as not to be seen when he left the trees that shielded him. When he reached the narrow game trail, he took a few moments to make sure Mike was not lingering there, having possibly seen that he was being followed. Then he stepped down from the saddle and led his horse a short distance into the trees before tying it to a young pine, thinking it better to pursue his prey on foot.
Proceeding cautiously, he followed the winding trail that seemed to be leading toward the ridge. The darkness within the pine trees made it difficult to see very far ahead of him, and he reminded himself that he had no notion as to who, or how many, might be at the end of this trail. What if the man's father, old Jack Lynch, himself, had slipped back into Arkansas, and he and his gang were waiting for his son? I sure as hell should have considered that before I started, Hardy thought. His plan to tail Mike Lynch without a couple of possemen now occurred to him as a little foolhardy. In spite of the tense atmosphere of the dark forest closing in on him, he was struck by the irony when he realized that the word foolhardy, when split apart became his name and fool. It created a mental distraction for only a second, but that was enough to cause him to fail to see the stout pine limb that caught him full in the face, crushing his nose.
Mike wasted no time following up the massive blow delivered by the pine limb. Hardy went down on his back, stunned by the attack and unable to defend himself against a second blow that landed beside his head with sufficient force to break the limb in two. Like a crazed cougar, Mike Lynch was immediately on top of the smaller man, pinning him to the ground while he drew the .44 from Hardy's holster. With the barrel of the weapon barely inches from the unfortunate lawman's forehead, Mike fired a bullet into Hardy's brain.
Straddled atop his victim's body, Mike listened to hear any sounds that might indicate he had been wrong in thinking Hardy was alone. When there was no sign that the sound of the shot had summoned anyone, Mike got off the body and proceeded to strip it of everything of any value to him. He was pleased to find that the lawman had a little money in his pocket. Still concerned that there might have been more lawmen following up behind Hardy, Mike did not linger. He took only a moment to consider stripping the body of its clothes, but he saw right away that they were much too small to fit. It was especially disappointing to find the boots too small as well. He would have hoped to trade them for the prison work shoes he wore. Wouldn't want anybody to see me wearing a dead man's clothes, anyway, he told himself. "Right now, I need to get as far away from this place as fast as I can," he announced to the corpse staring up at him. To confirm his original suspicions, he took a moment to reach down and pull Hardy's coat open. "I'll see you in hell, Deputy," he said when he saw the badge pinned to Hardy's vest.
Back at the start of the trail, he found the sorrel tied to a young pine. "Now, I reckon we're gonna see just how stout a horse you are," he said to the horse and stepped up into the saddle. With no thought of sparing the patient mount, he kicked it hard into a full gallop down the dark road, anxious to leave all traces of his evil deed behind him as quickly as possible. As he rode through the night, he reveled in the realization that, like his infamous father, he too had sent one of the government's deputy marshals to his grave. It gave him a sense of pride and a closer feeling of kinship with his pa.
The sorrel was willing, but was soon straining to the point of foundering, and Mike was forced to let up on the lathered horse. With concern for nothing other than reaching Indian Territory as quickly as possible, he rested the horse only when the weary animal began to stumble. He set out once again when the sorrel appeared somewhat recovered from the grueling pace. Holding the gelding to a steady lope, he rode on through the night, and morning saw the abused horse once again stumbling. "Damn you!" Mike swore. "Don't you quit on me!" He pushed the weary sorrel on through the morning until he came to a small settlement of farms. Passing through them, the horse began to balk, barely continuing until nearing the last in the cluster of homes, where it finally came to a halt, refusing to go farther. No amount of cursing and whipping could persuade it to move. Mike dismounted, forced to let the horse rest, only to have to jump quickly aside to keep from being crushed when the sorrel fell over dead. His initial reaction was to curse the horse for its failure.
Back on foot again, he looked around him, not sure where he was, but thinking that surely he must be less than a day's ride from Fort Smith — if he had a horse. He cursed the sorrel again. It seemed a shame to leave a fine saddle, but he didn't care for the notion of lugging it all the way to Fort Smith. So he removed the saddlebags and a coil of rope and started out once again on foot.
He had put several miles between himself and Hardy's dead sorrel when an opportunity to ride again presented itself. He had come to a section where the fields of a large farm came right up to the road he was walking on. At the far end of one of the fields, he could see several men working to clear some additional land. His initial reaction was to slip into the trees on the opposite side of the road to avoid being seen, returning to the road only after he was sure he was clear. Looking out across the rolling fields he now passed, he saw a house and barn in the distance. They looked to be located near the creek he could see ahead of him. "Hot damn!" he blurted suddenly when some movement in a pasture below the barn caught his eye. He stopped abruptly to make sure. It was horses, all right, a dozen or more. "And just when I need one," he muttered. He turned around and looked back the way he had come. He could no longer see the men working in the field, but he figured they most likely came from the farm buildings he had just spotted. There was no decision to be made, and no hesitation to head for the herd of horses in the pasture. Preferably, he would pick out a nice horse for himself and ride off without anyone knowing. But even if he was spotted stealing a horse, he was now armed with Hardy's weapons, so he wasn't worried about anyone left at the farmhouse stopping him.
Excerpted from Will tanner, U.S. Deputy marshal by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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