Johnstone Country. Frontier Spirit Lives Here.
Luke Jensen comes from a righteous brood. Survival is in his blood. And he’s burned enough gunpowder to forge out his own legend on the frontier as the toughest bounty hunter who ever stalked his prey . . .
THE HUNTING PARTY
When Luke Jensen traps fugitive Ben Craddock in Arapaho Springs, he’s ready to collect on his bounty. But the job’s not done—not by a long shot. A raid by a savage gang known as the Legion of Fire has left the peaceful settlement looted, burned to the ground, and the ashes scoured for female hostages—including the marshal’s daughter. For Luke this is more than a hunt. It’s now a rescue. And with Craddock busted out of jail and thrown in with the gang, it’s also revenge. Wrangling a small posse, Luke heads for the Legion’s hideout in the Kansas badlands. Outnumbered, they can’t risk an ambush. Instead, it’s going to take cutthroat cunning for the outlaws of the Legion of Fire to go down in flames—one by one.
Praise for the novels of William W. Johnstone
“[A] rousing, two-fisted saga of the growing American frontier.”—Publishers Weekly on Eyes of Eagles
“There’s plenty of gunplay and fast-paced action as this old-time hero proves again that a steady eye and quick reflexes are the keys to survival on the Western frontier.”—Curled Up with a Good Book on Dead Before Sundown
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About the Author
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
Two minutes before the bullets started to fly, Luke Jensen emerged from the Keg 'N Jug Saloon and paused on the lip of the weathered walkway that ran in front of the place. He was feeling frustrated and more than a little puzzled.
Following standard procedure for arriving in a strange town on the trail of a fugitive, he had stopped by the town marshal's office to report his presence and state his business. Trouble was, he'd found only a plump, round-faced old man present, a self-described "part-time deputy whenever the marshal has to be out of town."
The deputy had gone on to inform Luke that the marshal was away chasing rustlers and there was no telling when he would be back. Hardly inspired by the oldster's seeming lack of eagerness for getting involved in anything of significance, Luke hadn't bothered him with the details of his visit, just let him know he was a bounty hunter and passing through.
From there, Luke had checked out first the livery stable and then the town's two drinking establishments. He'd come up empty all the way around. No sign of either the man he was looking for or the horse the man had been riding, as previously seen through the magnification of Luke's binoculars.
Earlier that morning, Luke had unexpectedly spotted the little town of Arapaho Springs from the crest of a tall hill off to the east. He'd viewed it as a stroke of possible good luck following the bad luck of a storm that had kept him hunkered down and drenched for most of the previous day and night. Thanks to that storm, he had lost the trail of Ben Craddock — the hombre whose name and face were plastered on a wanted poster Luke carried in his shirt pocket.
In addition to Craddock's image and description, the poster also displayed the banner $2,500 REWARD — DEAD OR ALIVE. That was where Luke came in. As a bounty hunter of considerable renown, he made his living off running down men like Craddock.
He was far from ready to give up in this case. The fact Craddock seemed to have given him the slip was only a temporary setback.
Upon sighting the town, Luke had figured it was probable that the wanted man, who'd been on the trail for a long stretch before also getting caught in the same storm as his pursuer, would stop at least long enough to replenish his supplies and more than likely oil his tonsils some at one of the saloons along the muddy main street.
True, Craddock was a man on the run and therefore somewhat cautious, but he had no idea Luke was on his trail, let alone anywhere close. Since the crimes that had prompted the wanted poster had been committed a whole state away and Arapaho Springs was such an out-of-the-way little place, it seemed unreasonable for Craddock to pass it up.
Yet it appeared he had. Either that or he'd come and gone so quickly that no one Luke had spoken with so far remembered seeing him.
So the man hunter was left with a decision to make. Did he hang around a little longer, check a little closer to make sure Craddock was nowhere in town? Or did he ride on, hoping to pick up the fugitive's trail again?
Or did he tarry awhile strictly for his own purposes — namely, taking in a hot meal at the cafÃ© down the street and maybe finding a place where he could bathe and change clothes — and then move on to once more cut Craddock's sign? Any doubt about accomplishing the latter never entered his mind. Luke was good at what he did, and that included being a keen- eyed tracker. He may have lost his man's trail briefly, due to the rain, but he felt confident it would be just a matter of time before he was able to pick it up again.
With that thought in mind, he made his decision. He would take some extra time for that hot meal and bath, perhaps ask a few more questions to those he encountered in the process. If no trace or remembrance of Craddock continued, it would be time to climb back in the saddle and ride on.
Luke started toward the cafÃ© that had been tempting him ever since he'd passed it earlier and caught a whiff of delicious aromas. Fortunately, it was on the same side as the Keg 'N Jug, so he didn't have to cross the muddy, sloppy street again.
As he strode along, continuing to take in the sights and sounds of the peaceful little town that surrounded him, Luke received a considerable amount of appraisal in return. He was a tall, solidly built man in his early forties, with rugged facial features built around a prominent nose and neatly trimmed mustache. No one would ever call him classically handsome, yet women tended to find him attractive while men took note for reasons of their own. He dressed habitually in black — boots, trousers, shirt, wide-brimmed hat. Around his waist he wore a brace of nickel-plated Remington revolvers pouched in holsters set for the cross draw and a sheathed knife on his left hip, just behind the gun on that side. He generally earned more than a passing glance.
As he approached the cafÃ©, Luke again caught scent of the aromas that had first lured him. Only a couple of horses were tied at the hitch rail out front of the establishment, but it being close to the noon hour, Luke expected there would be a good-sized crowd inside. At least there should be, if the food was anywhere near as good as it smelled. It crossed Luke's mind that, given his rather bedraggled, mud-spattered condition, maybe he should opt for the bath and change of clothes first, before mingling with other diners.
While he was pondering whether or not to clean up first, the choice was suddenly made for him. A rifle crack came from the opposite side of the street and the accompanying wind-rip of a bullet passed scarcely an inch in front of his nose. His reaction was swift, instinctive as he jerked back a half step and dropped into a low crouch. Even as the bullet that barely missed him was smashing against the side of the building he'd been passing, the Remingtons seemed to leap into his fists.
Staying crouched, his eyes scanned across the street, looking for some sign of the shot's origin. Up and down the boardwalk in either direction and on both sides, citizens who'd been going about their business were scrambling frantically to get inside one of the stores or otherwise find cover.
In the wide-open double doors of a blacksmith shop catty-cornered across the suddenly abandoned strip of muddy wagon and horse tracks, Luke saw what he was looking for. In that doorway, braced against its frame on one side, stood a man with a rifle raised to his shoulder. A haze of bluish smoke from his first shot hung in the air just above the man's head and, as Luke's eyes locked on him, he triggered another round.
The shot tore in low, gouging a furrow and throwing a spray of splinters from the boardwalk planks half a foot to Luke's left. Luke instantly responded by squeezing off a blast from each of his revolvers. The range was pushing the accuracy for a handgun, especially rounds fired without taking careful aim, but at the moment, Luke was only looking to neutralize the advantage of the man who'd opened up on him and buy himself a few seconds to get to shelter.
He got what he wanted when the rifleman ducked back from the .44 caliber slugs the Remingtons had sent screaming through the blacksmith shop doorway. While the shooter was trying to get reset and raise his rifle again, Luke sprang up out of his crouch, spun to one side, and lunged around the corner of the building he'd been caught in front of. A third shot chased him, but too late. It only managed to blow away a fist-sized chunk of wood an instant after Luke disappeared behind the building's edge.
He found himself at the mouth of a narrow alley between two structures. The ground underfoot was wet and sloppy, sucking at his boots, and strings of pooled rainwater were still dribbling down from the buildings' eaves. But all of that was minor discomfort compared to stopping a bullet.
His mind raced, calculating and weighing his options. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he'd caught up with his man — for the rifleman across the way was none other than Ben Craddock. The brief glimpse Luke had gotten between bullets was enough to confirm that much.
Damn! The blacksmith shop. That was where Craddock had gone after arriving in town. Considering all the miles Luke knew his quarry had recently ridden, he should have thought of the possibility Craddock's horse might need some reshoeing.
As a matter of fact, before leaving his own horse at the livery stable, Luke had taken time to check and make sure its shoes were in good shape since it, too, had traveled a fair stretch of miles and a smithy was close at hand if any repair had been needed. Finding everything okay in that department, he'd dismissed any further thought of the blacksmith.
A mistake, as it turned out. Nearly a fatal one.
As far as Luke knew, he'd given no prior indication to Craddock that he was closing in on him. His name, black-clad appearance, and his line of work were pretty widely known across the frontier. All it would have taken was for the wanted man to have gazed out the open doors of the blacksmith shop when Luke was coming up the street and he would have quickly jumped to the conclusion the bounty hunter was after him. What apparently came next was an equally quick decision to waste no time cutting him down with rifle fire.
Only Luke's swift reflexes had saved him. At least so far.CHAPTER 2
Once more dropping into a crouch, Luke leaned out around the corner of the building and fired another shot into the doorway of the blacksmith barn. As before, he didn't take time for careful aim. He meant to accomplish two things. One, he wanted to make sure Craddock was still in place, and two, he wanted to work on his nerves some.
How successful he was at the latter, he had no way of knowing. But Craddock was still in the blacksmith's doorway, though pulled back so that only a sliver of him was visible along the edge of the frame. As soon as Luke's shot sizzled well wide of him, the fugitive leaned out and blasted two return rounds into the mouth of the alley.
With bullets again chewing wood in his wake, Luke wheeled about and lit a shuck toward the far end of the alley. There was no sense remaining where he was and continuing to trade lead with Craddock, especially at the range disadvantage for Luke's pistols against the outlaw's rifle.
Luke burst out the rear of the alley, slipping and skidding a bit, then cut hard to his right. Once again, he was headed in the direction of the aromatic café, and it occurred to him that if he came up on the far side of the eatery, it should put him almost straight across from the doorway to the blacksmith shop.
He pumped his arms as he ran, the long-barreled Remingtons flashing in his fists. From out on the street he heard the crack of two more rifle reports, Craddock firing blindly into the alley Luke had just vacated.
Good, let the damn fool waste ammunition.
It also signaled he was holding in place, unknowingly waiting for Luke to get repositioned.
Even as that advantage crossed his mind, Luke reached the back of the café. He slowed as he came to the far corner, allowing his breathing to level off some and then slowly edging around the building to take a cautious look and get his bearings. He quickly saw that he was a little farther down the street than he'd reckoned. Only a portion of the blacksmith shop was visible straight ahead. He'd have to move forward along the side of the café in order to reach a point where he could see into the doorway Craddock was shooting from.
That was okay with Luke. Possibly even a bit better than he'd hoped for. The angle for his line of fire would be reversed — left to right instead of right to left — though at a considerably reduced distance. What was more, if Craddock remained crowded partially behind the door frame on the right, he would be almost completely exposed when Luke reached the front corner of the café.
Luke edged forward, brushing along the side of the building, pistols raised and ready. The street remained empty and silent. The sound of his muddy boots on the soggy ground sounded contrastingly loud.
Reaching the corner of the café, he leaned cautiously ahead and out. His eyes locked intently as more and more of the blacksmith shop's open doorway came into view. All of it was right before him ... but it was empty! There was no longer any sign of Craddock.
What the hell?
Luke fought the urge to lunge forward and sweep his gaze in all directions. But no, he didn't want to risk exposing himself too completely or too suddenly. Craddock could have merely stepped back deeper into the shop, losing himself in the shadows but still maintaining a full view of the street.
Luke had moved fast but apparently not fast enough to keep Craddock from growing suspicious or for some other reason deciding to shift his own position. Exactly to where and what he next —
A sudden ruckus came from somewhere near the back of the blacksmith shop. What sounded like the clatter of loose boards mixed with the shrill protest of a horse against a man's harsh commands.
"Yah! Yah! Get on through there, damn you!"
It was enough for Luke to realize what was happening. Craddock was attempting to escape on horseback out the rear of the blacksmith shop!
Luke shoved away from the café, and rushed out onto the street, quickly taking in the rectangular, scaled-down, barnlike structure of the blacksmith shop. Through the wide-open front doors, he could see the glow of a forge near the front. Farther back, since the smithy fashioned horseshoes and apparently also did farrier work, Luke reckoned there must be stalls or holding pens of some kind. Speculating that Craddock had his horse in for some shoe work meant the animal was readily available now that the fugitive was resorting to flight after his failure to effectively ambush the bounty hunter.
Luke wasn't inclined to let that happen. Not if he could help it.
Although the alley and the ground he'd passed over behind the other buildings was wet and sloppy, it was nothing compared to the middle of the street. Churned by numerous horses and wagons during and since the prolonged rain, it was a soupy, syrupy morass that seemed almost like a living thing bent on trapping and holding Luke's feet and legs. The slowness forced on him by fighting through the thick muck was infuriating, but he trudged ahead, slogging on, slamming first one foot forward and then the other. He thought he heard the wet thud of hooves out back of the blacksmith barn but couldn't be sure over the puff of his labored breathing and the thick slap of his own feet.
He stayed on a straight course toward the side of the blacksmith building, not veering to the open doorway. The alley on the side was wide and clear, through which he figured he could make better time than threading his way through the crowded, cluttered shop. Plus he didn't want to silhouette himself in the wide doorway, just in case Craddock lingered long enough to try one more shot at him.
The alley running beside the blacksmith barn was as muddy as the previous alleys and the ground behind the other buildings, but it was still a welcome reprieve from the street. When Luke reached it and began racing toward the other end, he finally felt like his feet had been freed and he was actually running again.
As he neared the end of the alley, he glimpsed the treeless, grassy, undulating expanse of Kansas landscape behind the blacksmith barn. It was interrupted only by a battered old wooden fence and a deep, weed-choked drainage ditch just a short way beyond that.
Ignoring the view, he came in sight of Craddock again. As expected, the fugitive was mounted on the same horse Luke had previously caught glimpses of through his binocular lenses. They'd already made it past the fence, a pair of wooden rails knocked loose from their posts offering an explanation for the clattering of boards Luke had heard earlier.
Craddock was spurring his horse hard toward the drainage ditch but had to hold up after only a couple of dozen yards in order to negotiate the steep banks of the ditch — too wide to jump and worn deep by decades of hard rain runoff from the surrounding slopes. The horse shied at the near edge of the cut, not wanting to start down the slick, weedy bank, but Craddock's cursing and the insistent pounding of his heels forced the frightened beast on over.
Luke ran past the end of the blacksmith barn just as horse and rider dropped down out of sight. The depth of the ditch and the high growth of weeds running along its rim momentarily obscured them.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Luke Jensen, Bounty Hunter Legion Of Fire"
Copyright © 2018 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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