Johnstone Country. Keeping the West wild.
U.S. Marshal Will Tanner is one hell of a manhunter. But this time, he’s chasing six men across three states with one gun and no backup. This isn’t justice. This is a suicide mission . . .
DIG YOUR OWN GRAVE
It starts with a prison break in Missouri. When notorious bank robber Ansel McCoy busts out, he teams up with five other outlaws. Then he and his gang rob a bank in Kansas. Now they’re crossing state lines into Oklahoma Indian Territory. And that’s where U.S. Marshal Will Tanner steps in. Other marshals from Kansas and Missouri have already lost the trail. Which means Tanner has to go it alone. Deep in the wilderness. Outnumbered and outgunned. One good man against six blood-crazed killers. Even if he manages to survive the elements and find McCoy’s hideout, it’s not just the end of his search. It’s his funeral . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
About the Author
William W. Johnstone is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of over 300 books, including the series THE MOUNTAIN MAN; PREACHER, THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN; MACCALLISTER; LUKE JENSEN, BOUNTY HUNTER; FLINTLOCK; THOSE JENSEN BOYS; THE FRONTIERSMAN; SAVAGE TEXAS; THE KERRIGANS; and WILL TANNER: DEPUTY U.S. MARSHAL. His thrillers include BLACK FRIDAY, TYRANNY, STAND YOUR GROUND, and THE DOOMSDAY BUNKER. Visit his website at www.williamjohnstone.net or email him 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
Looks like Tom Spotted Horse was right, he thought. He dismounted and dropped Buster's reins to the ground, then proceeded on foot to get a better look at the camp by the water's edge. The Chickasaw policeman had told him Ike Skinner had passed through Tishomingo, headed toward Blue River. Will wasn't surprised. He figured Ike was on his way to Texas after a series of train station robberies south along the MKT. So when Dan Stone had sent him to arrest Ike, he had headed down the line to Atoka in hopes of cutting him off before he reached that town. Unfortunately, he was too late by half a day to intercept him in Atoka, but he had an idea that Ike might cut over to Tishomingo. He was sweet on a Chickasaw woman named Lyla Birdsong, who lived there, and that was where Will had arrested him before. Ike was never a man to use good judgment, and it looked like the two years he had spent in prison had done little to teach him any common sense.
Will had also been too late to catch him at Lyla Birdsong's father's cabin in Tishomingo, but he hadn't been hard to track from there. Ike had not waited long to camp for the night, which didn't surprise Will, since he hadn't seen Lyla in two years. He should have waited at least until he crossed the Red and celebrated their reunion in Texas, Will thought. He almost felt sorry for him. Ike was not a cruel criminal by any standard. He just wasn't smart enough to make a living from anything but stealing. Better get my mind back on business, Will reminded himself, and made his way carefully through the stand of oaks on the banks of the river. Close enough to see the two people seated by the fire clearly now, he took a moment to verify what he had suspected. The other person with Ike was, indeed, Lyla Birdsong. He had hesitated because Lyla had apparently grown some in the two years since Ike was away, not so much up, but out. Will had seen her before on only one brief occasion, and she was a husky woman then. Looking at her now, she looked to be more woman than Ike could handle. He could only assume that she had come with Ike willingly, so he wouldn't have to be charged with abduction on top of the armed robbery charges.
Will moved a few yards closer before suddenly stepping out from behind a tree and calling out a warning. "Don't make a move, Ike, and we'll make this as easy as possible!" As he expected, the warning was wasted as Ike, startled, tried to scramble to his feet. Ready for just such a possibility, Will had his Winchester in position to fire. He placed a shot that kicked up dirt at Ike's feet and stopped him from running. Then he quickly cranked another round into the chamber and placed a second shot in the dirt on the other side of Ike when he started to run in the opposite direction. "I ain't gonna waste any more ammunition in the dirt," Will threatened. "The next one's gonna stop you for good." The warning served its purpose. Ike hesitated a moment, but gave up on the idea of running for cover.
"Will Tanner," Ike moaned plaintively, "I shoulda known it would be you." He stood by the fire, feeling helpless as Will approached, his rifle cocked and still trained on him. "Dadgum it, how'd you find me so quick?"
"You're a creature of habit, Ike," Will replied. "You need to change your old ways, if you're plannin' to be an armed robber the rest of your life. Now, with your left hand, unbuckle that gun belt and let it drop." While Ike dutifully complied, Will kept an eye on the Chickasaw woman, who had so far shown no reaction to his intrusion. Sitting calmly, her stoic expression registering no sign of alarm, she prompted Will to be extra cautious, lest she might suddenly explode.
"Whaddaya botherin' me for, Tanner?" Ike implored. "I ain't done nothin' to get the law on my tail."
"You held up the train depot in McAlester and again in Atoka," Will answered. "Both stationmasters identified you as the bandit."
"How can they be sure it was me?" Ike blurted. "I was wearin' a bandanna on my face." A pregnant moment of silence followed immediately after he said it. "Uh ..." he stumbled, an expression of utter frustration cramping his whiskered face. "I mean, he was most likely wearin' a mask, weren't he?"
"Yeah, he was wearin' a red bandanna, like the one you're wearin' around your neck," Will said. "Now, you've rode with me before, so you know I don't give you any trouble as long as you don't cause me any." He turned to the somber woman still sitting there, watching impassively. "How 'bout you, Miss Birdsong? There weren't any reports that Ike had anybody with him when he held up the railroad offices. I'm guessin' Ike just picked you up last night. Is that right?" She looked up to meet his gaze, but did not answer his question. "I'm gonna take that as a yes," Will said, "so you're free to go on back home." He watched her carefully while she considered what he had just said. "Ike's gonna be gone for a long spell," he added.
"I go," she spoke finally, and got to her feet. It would have been hard to miss the reluctance in her tone. Will could easily understand why. Lyla had an ugly scar on her nose that testified to her having been marked with a knife for entertaining too many men. Almost certainly, she saw Ike Skinner as her only chance to escape her father's cabin, for no men of her tribe would have anything to do with her. No doubt her father would be disappointed to see her return home just as much as she would be.
When she started toward her horse, Ike pleaded, "Lyla, honey, don't leave me. I came to get you as soon as I got outta prison. We was gonna make it down in Texas."
"You not go to Texas," Lyla said. "You go to jail. I not go to jail with you. I go home."
"I reckon this just ain't your day, Ike," Will said. "She wouldn't have stayed with you for very long, anyway." He pointed to a small tree close by. "You know how this works." Ike knew it was useless to balk, so he walked over and put his arms around the tree. Will clamped his wrists together with his handcuffs, then went to help Lyla saddle her horse and get her things together. When she had packed up her few belongings and ridden away, he saddled Ike's horse, then went to retrieve Buster. In a short time, he rode up from the river, leading Ike and his packhorse behind him. Ike didn't have a packhorse. Will suspected that was Ike's packhorse that Lyla was now riding. The makeshift Indian saddle had led him to believe that to be the case. Her father might not have gotten rid of her, but at least he gained a horse.
Will figured three and a half to four days to make the trip to Fort Smith, barring any interruptions along the way, and he didn't expect much trouble from Ike. When he was working in this part of the Nations, and headed home, he usually camped overnight at Jim Little Eagle's cabin on Muddy Boggy Creek near Atoka. He decided there was enough daylight left to make it to Jim's before dark, and the horses were already rested. Jim, the Choctaw policeman, was a good friend of Will's, and his wife, Mary Light Walker, was always a gracious hostess. With that in mind, he started out with thoughts of maybe a couple of biscuits from Mary's oven for him and his prisoner.
They rode for only about thirty minutes before striking a trail that ran between Atoka and the Arbuckle Mountains, a trail that Will had ridden many times before. Following the familiar trail, they approached a low line of hills and a stream that ran through a shallow pass between them. Will usually paused there to let the horses drink and that was his intention on this day. Sensing the water ahead, Buster quickened his pace in anticipation of a drink. Will leaned forward on the big buckskin's neck to give him a playful pat, instantly hearing the snap of a rifle slug passing directly over his back. It was followed almost at the same time by the report of the rifle that fired it. Acting on instinct, he didn't wait to hear the next shot. Hugging Buster's neck, he shifted to the side as much as possible while giving the buckskin his heels. There was no time to worry about Ike following behind him. His reins were tied to a lead rope behind Will's saddle. His first thought was to find cover, so he drove Buster into the trees beside the stream as a second shot whined through the leaves of the trees. He pulled up only when he felt he had put enough trees between himself and the shooter, who he figured was on the other side of the stream.
That was mighty damn careless of me, he thought as he told Ike to dismount. He had a pretty good idea who the shooter was. "Hug that tree!" he ordered.
"You tryin' to get us both kilt?" Ike complained. "You can't leave me locked to a damn tree with somebody tryin' to shoot us!"
"Hurry up and get down off that horse," Will demanded. "I don't wanna have to shoot you outta that saddle." He waited just a moment to make sure Ike did as he ordered. "I don't think you've got much to worry about. I'm pretty sure I'm the target." Once he was satisfied that Ike was secured to a tall pine tree, he made his way back toward the bank of the stream, where he could scan the other side. There had been no more shots fired after the first two, so all he could do was try to guess where the sniper was hiding. As he shifted his eyes back and forth along the stream, he decided that the best place for the shooter to hide was a narrow ravine that led up the slope. He figured the sniper, having missed the kill shot, might be inclined to depart, so he decided to try to keep that from happening. "You just sit tight," he said to Ike when he came back into the trees and started trotting downstream.
"Where the hell are you goin'?" Ike blurted.
"Just sit tight," Will repeated without turning his head. "I'll be back to get you."
In a matter of seconds, he was lost from Ike's sight, and when he decided he was far enough downstream not to be seen, he crossed over the stream and climbed up the hill on the other side. With his Winchester in hand, he hurried along the top of the hill, back toward the ravine he had spotted. He paused briefly when he suddenly heard a wailing from the trees he had just left across the stream. "Lyla, honey!" Ike's mournful voice called out. "Is that you? Be careful, he's comin' to get you!"
"I shoulda stuffed a rag in his mouth," Will mumbled, and started running along the crest of the hill, thinking he'd have to hurry to catch her before she ran. Then he spotted Lyla's horse still tied behind the hill. More careful now, he slowed down as he approached the top of the ravine, expecting to meet her climbing up out of it. There was no sign of her, however, so with his rifle at the ready, he started making his way down the narrow ravine. He had not gone halfway down when he saw her. She had not run at all, but had remained sitting behind a low shoulder of the ravine, her old Spencer carbine still aimed at the trees across from her.
Taking pains to be as quiet as possible, he inched down the ravine until he was no more than thirty feet from the unsuspecting woman. "Make a move and you're dead," he suddenly announced, causing her to freeze for a few moments, afraid to turn around. "Lyla, forget about it," Will warned when she hesitated, as if trying to decide to act or not. "I'll cut you down before you have a chance to turn around. Now, drop that rifle and raise your hands in the air." She hesitated a few moments more, painfully reluctant to admit defeat, then she finally realized she had no chance and did as he instructed. "Doggone it, Lyla, I let you go before, because you hadn't committed any crime. Now you've gone and tried to shoot me, and all to free that worthless saddle tramp, Ike Skinner. So I'm gonna have to arrest you, and I reckon I oughta warn you, white, Indian, man, or woman, it doesn't matter to me. If you don't do like I tell you, or try to run away, I won't hesitate to shoot you. You understand?" She did not reply, as was her custom, so he asked her again, this time a little more forcefully.
"I understand," she said. "I no run."
"Good," he said. "Now we'll go get your horse. Start climbin' up outta this ravine." He followed her up, carrying her old Spencer as well as his Winchester. Once out of the ravine, they went down the backside of the hill and got her horse. She went along without protest, knowing she had been arrested for trying to kill a U.S. Deputy Marshal and would most likely go to jail for it. She had failed in her attempt to free Ike Skinner, but she had managed to complicate the deputy's job of transporting his prisoner. He didn't want to bother with Lyla, even if she did take a shot at him. I'll decide what to do with her after I get to Atoka, he told himself.
Upon approaching the spot where he had left Ike and the horses, Will stopped short and dropped the carbine to free both hands to fire his rifle. He was looking at the tree where he had handcuffed Ike, but Ike was gone. Then he noticed a few broken limbs and branches at the base of the tree. They prompted him to look up to discover Ike about fifteen feet up the trunk, clinging to a limb that was obviously too big to break off. Will was frankly amazed. Ike had climbed up the trunk like a telegraph lineman until reaching the limb that stopped him. As insane as it was, Will had to ask, "What the hell were you tryin' to do? Did you think you could climb right up over the top of the tree?"
Ike didn't answer at once. He had to rethink his failed attempt to escape. Still clinging to the limb fifteen feet up the trunk, he finally replied, "I weren't sure it would work, but I figured I'd give it a try."
Will shook his head and shrugged. "Well, shinny back down. I brought you some company, and I'm plannin' to ride awhile before we stop for the night, so hurry up." He figured he had enough time to make it to Jim Little Eagle's cabin before darkness really set in. He was sure he could count on Jim for some help with his prisoners. Since he had brought only one set of handcuffs with him, he had to tie Lyla's hands with his rope. So he busied himself with getting her in the saddle to the accompaniment of little yelps of pain behind him as Ike descended the rough trunk of the pine. Having arrested the simple man before, Will was inclined not to be surprised by any harebrained plan Ike came up with. Lyla, on the other hand, could not be taken lightly. She had already proven to be more dangerous.
The Chickasaw woman's attempt to shoot a lawman in order to free her lover was a notable boost to the slow-witted outlaw's confidence. "I knew you'd try to get me back, darlin'," he said when they were both in the saddle. "I'm sorry we wound up in this fix after you waited so long for me."
The stoic woman replied with nothing more than a grunt. It was Will's opinion that Lyla's decision to take a shot at him was not an act of devotion toward Ike. It was more an attempt to avoid growing old in her father's cabin. In view of her past indiscretions and unfortunate physical appearance, she was desperate to go with any male who would have her. In spite of what she had done, he felt sorry for her.
* * *
The sun was already about to drop below the far hills west of Atoka when Will and his prisoners entered the clearing on Muddy Boggy Creek where Jim Little Eagle had built his cabin. Will called out and identified himself before approaching the cabin. A moment later, Jim, carrying a lantern and his rifle, walked out of the barn. "That you, Will? I wondered who was coming to call this late in the day. Who's that with you?"
Will rode on in and reined Buster to a halt beside the Choctaw policeman. "I've got a couple of prisoners I'm transportin' to jail. Sorry to be ridin' in on you so late, but if you don't mind, I'll camp here on the creek tonight."
Jim walked back, holding his lantern up to get a better look at the prisoners. When he got to Lyla, he held the lantern up a little longer. Walking back beside Will's horse, he commented, "One of them is a woman. One of our people?"
"Chickasaw," Will replied. "I was thinkin' about turnin' her over to you, her being an Indian. Figured it was more under your jurisdiction. I'll take Ike back to Fort Smith for trial."
"What did she do?" Jim asked, and took a second look at the sullen woman.
"Not much, really," Will said. "Took a shot at me and that's really the only reason I arrested her." He went on then to tell Jim the whole story.
Jim turned his gaze back on Ike then. "So this is the man that stuck a .44 in Sam Barnet's face and rode off with twenty-two dollars."
"That's the man," Will replied. "Twenty-two dollars, huh? Is that all he got?"
They both looked at Ike then, and Jim said, "Yeah, Sam just gave him the little bit in the cash drawer. He said the safe was sitting there with the door open and about twenty-five hundred dollars in it, but your man was in a hurry to run." Ike hung his head, embarrassed upon hearing of his folly. Back to the other issue, Jim said he could put Lyla in jail, since there was no one presently occupying the small building that passed for the Atoka jail. She would be held there until the council could meet to decide her sentence. "Are you charging her with attempted murder?" Jim asked Will.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Dig Your Own Grave"
Copyright © 2019 J. A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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