The Last Gunfighter series by William W. Johnstone continues to expand the reach of the author's creative powers, placing the American frontier front and center with tales of down-and-out drifters, simple settlers, gregarious gunmen and loathing lawmen. In The Drifter, farmer Frank Morgan was an honest man with a future and a family before a barbarous baron pushed him off his hard-earned Colorado homestead. Now drifting through the New Mexico territory, Frank has given up his future and embraced his past: as a gunfighter, the only profession left to this most desperate desperado. But just when he thinks he's got nothing to live for, the citizens of the mining town that took him in find themselves in a precarious situation. the mining town that took him in is in a precarious predicament themselves. Their only hope is the quick draw and resolute spirit of…The Drifter.
"Boy," the older man said, "I strongly advise you not to pull on me."
It seemed to those in the barroom there was not only a great weariness to the man's voice, but also a great sadness. Some of the spectators wondered about that. A few thought they knew why the sadness was there.
Outside, the early spring winds still had a bite to them on the late-afternoon day.
"You're nothin' but a damned old washed-up piece of coyote crap," the young man replied.
Old is right, the man thought. Both in body and soul.
"And you're a coward, too!" the young man added.
The older man smiled, but his eyes turned chilly. "Boy, you should really learn to watch your mouth."
The young man laughed. "You gonna make me do that, you old has-been?"
"I would rather not have to do that, boy. Besides, that's something your mother and father should have taught you."
"I never paid no mind to what they said."
"Huh? Old man, you talk funny -- you know that? You tryin' to insult me or something?"
"Not at all, boy. Just agreeing with you."
"I don't like you, old man. I mean, I don't like you at all. I think you're all talk and no do. And I don't believe all them stories told 'bout you, neither. I don't think you've kilt no twenty or thirty men."
"I knowed it!"
"Closer to forty."
"You're a damn liar!"
"Boy, go home. Leave me alone."
"Naw. I'm gonna make you pull on me, Morgan. Then I'm gonna shoot you in the belly so's I can stand right here and watch you beg and cry and holler like a whipped pup 'til you die. That's what I'm gonna do."
"Is that really Frank Morgan?" a man in the crowd whispered to a friend.
"I thought he was a lot older."
"'Nuff talk, old man!" the young man yelled. "Grab iron, you old buffalo fart!"
Frank Morgan did not move. He stood and watched the much younger man. "If you want a shooting, boy, you're going to have to start it."
"Then I will, by God!"
"You think I won't?"
"I hope you don't, kid."
"I ain't no kid!"
"I'm known around here as Snake."
"There is a certain resemblance."
Someone in the crowd laughed at that.
"What?" the young man yelled.
"I was just agreeing with you," Morgan said.
"Yore gonna die, Morgan!"
"We all die, kid. Some long before their time. And I'm afraid you're about to prove me right."
The kid cussed and grabbed iron.
Morgan shot him before the kid could even clear leather -- shot him two times, the shots so close together they sounded as one. The kid's feet flew out from under him and he hit the floor, two holes in the center of his chest.
"Good God Almighty!" a man in the crowd said.
"He's as fast as he ever was," another man stage-whispered.
"You know Morgan?"
"I seen him once back in seventy-four, I think it was. He shot them two Burris brothers."
It was now April, 1888.
Frank slowly holstered his .45, then walked the few yards that had separated the two men. He stood for a moment looking down at the dying young man.
"I thought ... all that talk 'bout you was ... bull-crap," the young man gasped. Blood was leaking from his mouth.
"I wish it was," Frank said, then turned away from the bloody scene and stepped up to the bar. "A whiskey, please," he told the barkeep.
"I thought you only drank coffee, Mr. Morgan."
"Occasionally I will take a drink of hard liquor."
"Yes, sir. Mr. Morgan?"
Frank looked at the man.
"The sheriff and his deputies will be here shortly. Gunplay is not looked on with favor in this town."
"In other words, get out of town?"
"It was just a friendly suggestion. No offense meant."
"I know. None taken. Thank you." Same old story, Frank thought. Different piano player, same song.
Frank took a sip of whiskey.
"The kid's dead," someone said. "Reckon I ought to get the undertaker?"
"Not yet," a man said from the batwings.
Frank cut his eyes. Three men had stepped quietly into the saloon -- the sheriff and two of his deputies. The two deputies were carrying Greeners -- sawed-off, double-barreled shotguns.
No one with any sense wanted to take a chance when facing Frank Morgan.
Frank was standing alone at the bar, slowly taking tiny sips from his glass of whiskey.
"Frank Morgan," the sheriff said.
"Do I know you, Sheriff?" Frank asked. "I don't recall ever meeting you."
"I know you from dime novels, Morgan."
"Them writers want to make you a hero. But I know you for what you really are."
"What am I, Sheriff?"
"A damn, kill-crazy outlaw."
"I've never stolen a thing in my life, Sheriff."
Frank set the glass down on the bar and turned to face the sheriff. "That's right, Sheriff. I say."
The deputies raised the shotguns.
Frank smiled. "Relax, boys," he told them. "You'll get no trouble from me."
"You just can't keep that pistol in leather, can you, Morgan?" the sheriff said.
"I was pushed into this fight, Sheriff. Ask anyone here."
"I 'spect that's so, Morgan. The kid was a troublemaker, for a fact."
"You finish your drink and get out of town."
"I've got a very tired horse, Sheriff, with a loose shoe. He's at the livery now. You don't like me -- that's all right. But my horse has done nothing to you."
The sheriff hesitated. "All right, Morgan. You can stay in the stable with your horse. Get that shoe fixed first thing come the morning and then get the hell gone from here."
"Thank you. How about something to eat?"
"Get you some crackers and a pickle from the store 'cross the street. That'll have to do you."
"Crackers and a pickle," Frank muttered. "Well, I've eaten worse."
"Understood, Morgan?" the sheriff pressed.
"Some of you men get the kid over to the undertaker," the sheriff ordered. "Tell him he can have whatever's in the kid's pockets for his fee."
"Them guns of hisn, too?" a man asked.
"Yes. The guns, too."
Frank turned back to the bar and slowly sipped his drink. The sheriff walked over and leaned against the bar, staring at him.
"Something on your mind, Sheriff?" Frank asked.
"What's your tally now, Morgan? A hundred? A hundred and fifty dead by your gun?"
Frank smiled. "No, Sheriff. Not nearly that many. The kid there was the first man to brace me in several years."
"How'd you manage that, Morgan?"
"I stayed away from people. I mostly rode the lonesome."
"What made you stop here?"
"My horse. And I needed supplies. I lost my packhorse and supplies to some damned renegade young Indians last week. Down south of here."
"I heard about that. Got a wire from a sheriff friend of mine down that way. A posse went after those young bucks and cornered them. Killed them all."
Frank nodded his head. "They got what they deserved. That was a good horse they killed."
"Wilson at the livery's got a good packhorse he'd like to sell, if you've got the money. I don't think he wants much for him."
"I've got some money."
"I'll amble over there and drop a word on him to let you have the horse for his lowest price. Then you get supplies and ride on."
Without another word the sheriff turned and walked away, his deputies following.
The swamper mopped up the blood on the floor and sprinkled sawdust over the spot.
The saloon settled down to cards and low talk. The excitement was over. Killings were rare in the town, but nobody had really liked the kid who called himself Snake. He had been nothing but a smart-aleck troublemaker. He would not be missed.
Frank Morgan pulled out early the next morning, after provisioning up at the general store. The man at the livery had tossed in a packsaddle for a couple of dollars, and Frank brought supplies, lashed them down, and pulled out before most of the town's citizens were up emptying the chamber pot.
Frank took it easy that morning, stopping often just to look around. It had been years since he'd been in this part of New Mexico territory, and things had changed somewhat. Hell of a lot more people, for one thing. Seemed like there were settlers nearly everywhere he looked.
For his nooning, Frank settled down in the shade by a fast-running little creek that came straight down from the mountains and had him a sandwich the lady at the general store had been kind enough to fix for him ... for a dime.
Frank still wondered about the change in attitude of the local sheriff the day before. Some lawdogs could be real bastards, while others were fairly decent sorts once you got past all the bluster. But it had been many a year since any badge-toter had gotten too lippy with Frank Morgan. One tried to shove Frank around down in Texas -- back around '75, he thought it was. Wasn't any gunplay involved that day, but Frank had sure cleaned the loudmouth's plow with his fists.
Frank ate his sandwich and then rested for a time while his horses grazed. Then he stood up and stretched. Felt good. Frank was just a shade over six feet, lean-hipped, broad-shouldered, with smooth, natural musculature. At forty-five years old, Frank was still a powerful man. Not the hoss he used to be, but close enough. His thick hair was dark brown, graying now at the temples. Pale gray eyes.
Frank wore a .45 Colt Peacemaker, right side, low and tied down. He carried another Colt Peacemaker in his saddlebags. A Winchester rifle was stuck down in a saddle boot. On the left side of his belt he carried a long-bladed knife in a sheath. He occasionally used that knife to shave with. He was as handy with it as he was with a pistol.
Frank reluctantly left the peaceful setting of the creek and the shade and rode on slowly toward the north. He did not have a specific destination in mind; he was just rambling.
Frank had worked the winter in a line shack, looking after a rancher's cattle in a section of the high country. He still had most of his winter's wages.
Frank did have a dream: a small spread of his own in a quiet little valley with good graze and water. He occasionally opened a picture book in his mind and gazed at the dream, but the mental pages were slightly torn and somewhat tattered now. The dream had never materialized. Twice Frank had come close to having that little spread. Both times his past had caught up with him, and the local citizens in the nearest town had frozen him out. Nobody wanted the West's most notorious gunfighter as a neighbor.
Frank let part of his mind wander some as he rode, the other part remained vigilant. For the most part, Indian trouble was just about all over, except for a few young bucks who occasionally broke from the reservations and caused trouble. Those incidents usually didn't last long, and almost always ended with a pile of dead Indians.
The Wild West was settling down, slowly but surely.
Bands of outlaws and brigands still roamed the West, though, robbing banks and rustling cattle.
In the northern part of New Mexico it was the gangs of Ned Pine and Victor Vanbergen that were causing most of the trouble. Frank Morgan knew both men, and they hated him. Both had been known to go into wild outbursts of anger at just the mention of his name.
Frank had, at separate times, backed each of the outlaw leaders down and made them eat crow in front of witnesses. They both were gutsy men, but they weren't stupid. Neither one was about to draw on Frank Morgan.
There were several names in the West that caused brave men to sit down and shut up. Smoke Jensen, Falcon MacCallister, Louis Longmont, and Frank Morgan were the top four still living.
Ned Pine and Victor Vanbergen had started their careers in crime when just young boys, and both had turned into vicious killers. Their gangs numbered about twenty men each -- more from time to time, less at others -- and they were not hesitant to tackle entire small towns in their wild and so far unstoppable pursuit of money and women ... in that order.
Frank Morgan's life as a gunfighter had begun when he was in his midteen years and working as a hand on a ranch in Texas. One of the punchers had made Frank's life miserable for several months by bullying him whenever he got the chance ... which was often. One day Frank got enough of the cowboy's crap and hit him flush in the face with a piece of a broken singletree. When the puncher was able to see again and the swelling in his nose had gone down some, he swore to kill the boy. Young Frank Morgan, however, had other plans.
The puncher told Frank to get a gun 'cause the next time he saw him he was going to send him to his Maker.
Frank had an old piece of a pistol that he'd been practicing with when he got the money to buy ammunition. It was 1860, and times were hard, money scarce.
That day almost thirty years back was still vivid in Frank's mind.
He was so scared he had puked up his breakfast of grits and coffee.
Then he stepped out of the bunkhouse to meet his challenger, pistol in hand.
There was no fast draw involved in that duel. That would come a few years later.
The cowboy cursed at Frank and fired just as Frank stepped out of the bunkhouse, the bullet howling past Frank's head and knocking out a good-size splinter of wood from the rough doorframe. Frank damn near peed his underwear.
Young Frank acted out of pure instinct. Before the abusive puncher could fire again, Frank had lifted and cocked his pistol. He shot the puncher in the center of his chest. The man stumbled back as the .36-caliber chunk of lead tore into his flesh.
"You piece of turd!" the cowboy gasped, still on his boots. He lifted and cocked his pistol.
Frank shot him again, this time in the face, right between the eyes.
The puncher hit the hard ground, dead.
Frank walked over him and looked down at the dead man. The open empty eyes stared back at him. He struggled to fight back sickness, and managed to beat it. Frank turned away from the dead staring eyes.
"Luther had kin, boy," the foreman told him. "They'll be comin' to avenge him. You best get yourself set for that day. Make some plans."
"But I didn't start this!" Frank said. "He did." Frank pointed to the dead man.
"That don't make no difference, boy. I'll see you get your time, and a little extra."
"Am I leavin'?" Frank asked.
"If you want to stay alive, son. I know Luther had four brothers, and they're bad ones. They will come lookin' for you."
"They live close?"
"About a day's ride from here. And they got to be notified. So, you get your gear rolled up, son, and get ready to ride. I'll go see the boss."
"I'm right here," said the owner of the spread. "I was having my mornin' time in the privy." He paused for a moment and looked down at Luther. "Well, he was a good hand, but deep down just like his worthless brothers -- no damn good." He looked at Frank. "You kill him, boy?"
"Luther ain't gonna be missed by many. Only his sorry-assed brothers, I reckon. You got to go, boy. Sorry, but that's the way it has to be. For your sake. You get your personals together and then come over to the house. You got time comin', and I'll see you get some extra."
"I ain't even got a horse to call my own, Mr. Phillips," Frank said. "Or a saddle."
"You will," the rancher told him. "Get movin', son. I'll see you in a little while."
Frank rode out an hour later. He had his month's wages -- twelve dollars -- and twenty dollars extra Mr. Phillips gave him. He still had twenty-five dollars he'd saved over his time at the ranch, too. Frank felt like he was sort of rich. He had a sack of food Mrs. Phillips had fixed for him. He was well-mounted, for the foreman had picked him out a fine horse and a good saddle and saddlebags.
The other hands had gathered around to wish him farewell.
"You done the world a favor, Frankie," one told him.
"I never did like that sorry bastard," another told him.
"Here you go, Frankie," another puncher said, holding out Luther's guns. "You throw away that old rust pot you been totin' around and take these. You earned 'em, and you'll probably damn shore need them."
"What do you mean, Tom?" Frank asked.
"Frankie ... Luther was a bad one. He's killed four or five men that we know of with a pistol. He's got himself a reputation as a gunman. There'll be some who'll come lookin' to test you."
"Call you out, boy," the foreman said. "You're the man who killed Luther Biggs. They'll be some lookin' to kill you. Stay ready."
"I don't want no reputation like that," Frank protested.
"Your druthers don't cut no ice now, boy. You got the name of a gunman. Now, like it or not, you got to live with it."
Copyright © 2000 by William W. Johnstone