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Authors: J.A. Johnstone

The Loner: Crossfire

BOOK: The Loner: Crossfire
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The Loner:
CROSSFIRE
 
J. A. Johnstone
 
 
PINNACLE BOOKS
Kensington Publishing Corp.
www.kensingtonbooks.com
 
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Chapter 1
 
All roads lead home. Conrad Browning had heard someone say that once. He didn’t understand it, and he definitely didn’t agree with it. Maybe it was true for some people, but not for him.
In order for it to be true, he would have to
have
a home. And he didn’t, not anymore. Looking at Carson City, Nevada, he felt nothing. Although he had lived here, it was just the place where his wife had been kidnapped, a crime that had culminated in her brutal murder.
He had been raised in Boston, but that wasn’t home, either, as he had discovered on his most recent visit. It was the place where he had met Pamela Tarleton and become engaged to her, the single worst mistake of his life. The mistake that ultimately had brought him nothing but tragedy and grief.
Standing on the steps of the hospital in Carson City, Conrad gave a little shake of his head to break himself out of that grim reverie. He went inside, a tall, sandy-haired, ruggedly handsome man in his middle twenties wearing a black suit, black boots, and a black Stetson.
And a black leather gunbelt and holster that held a new Colt Frontier revolver with checkered, hard rubber grips embossed with an oval containing the Colt symbol.
It was a heavy, double-action weapon chambered for .44-40 cartridges, the same ammunition used by the Winchester Model 1892 rifle he owned. He had bought the Colt soon after he arrived in Carson City, and in the two weeks since, had practiced with it as much as possible, until he was able to handle the gun like it was another part of his body.
That was important, considering how often someone tried to kill him. There hadn’t been any attempts on his life since he’d arrived, but he knew that was bound to change.
He took off his hat and went to the desk in the hospital lobby where a white-uniformed nurse greeted him with a smile. Conrad knew a lot of the nurses were smitten with him, but that didn’t mean much to him.
“Good morning, Mr. Browning. You’re here to see your friend?”
Conrad nodded. “That’s right. How’s he doing?”
“Mr. Vincenzo is doing very well,” the nurse reported. “Dr. Taggart says he’s getting stronger all the time. You can go on up to his room if you’d like.”
“Thanks.” Conrad returned her smile. He’d been raised to be polite.
Arturo’s room was on the second floor. Conrad went up the wide, curving staircase, still holding his hat. Nurses and doctors passed him in the corridor, most of them smiling and nodding to him, occasionally speaking. He was a familiar sight. He had spent practically every visiting hour available at the hospital since he’d brought in his friend.
Conrad pushed open the door of the private room. It was a bright, cheery place, at least for a hospital. Morning sunlight spilled brilliantly through a window with the curtains pushed back. It was the finest room available, as Conrad had ordered. He could afford the best.
Arturo Vincenzo was sitting up in bed with pillows propped behind him, reading a novel by William Dean Howells. When he was healthy, he was a tall, slender, vaguely bird-like man with thinning brown hair. In the hospital, he was paler than usual, not having seen the sun for a while, and the ordeal he had gone through had etched some additional lines in his face and given him a certain gaunt aspect.
Arturo had suffered a bullet wound in the chest—a bullet intended for Conrad—and had come very close to dying. The local medico in Cavendish, Nevada, the small settlement where the shooting had taken place, wasn’t much good as a doctor, but somehow he had kept Arturo from bleeding to death and had stabilized his condition enough so Conrad was able to get him on the train and take him to Carson City.
Once the train arrived, an ambulance wagon had carried Arturo from the depot to the hospital, and the doctor who had taken over the case had operated almost immediately to repair the damage caused to Arturo’s right lung where the bullet nicked it. The slug had broken a rib, too.
Now it was just a matter of rest and recuperation, and Conrad thought Arturo looked a little better, a little stronger, every day. For a man who had never appeared to be much of a physical specimen, Arturo had proven to be surprisingly hardy and resilient.
He marked his place in the book and set it aside. “Good morning, sir.”
Conrad smiled. “I think you can stop calling me sir,” he said, although he knew it probably wouldn’t do much good.
“I
am
still in your employ, am I not?”
“Of course you are. You’ve got a job for as long as you want it, either with me or Claudius Turnbuckle. Claudius made that clear in his wire.”
Turnbuckle was a partner in the San Francisco law firm of Turnbuckle & Stafford. He and John J. Stafford were also good friends to Conrad and had been handling many of his business affairs for years, ever since Conrad had inherited half of the lucrative Browning financial holdings from his late mother Vivian.
The other half of Vivian’s estate had gone to Conrad’s father, the notorious gunfighter Frank Morgan, better known as The Drifter. Like Conrad, Frank didn’t take any active interest in the business. He had never paid much attention to it. Frank was content to wander, as he had been doing for decades before he inherited a fortune, and most of the time Conrad had no idea where his father was.
As soon as Arturo was out of immediate danger and recovering from surgery, Conrad had gotten in touch with Turnbuckle and made arrangements to have all the medical expenses taken care of. He had also advised Turnbuckle that he would be arriving in San Francisco sometime in the relatively near future. Turnbuckle knew the details of the quest that had taken Conrad across the country from Boston, and Conrad knew he could count on the lawyer for help.
When Conrad broke his engagement to Pamela Tarleton in order to marry beautiful, blond Rebel Callahan, Pamela had been pregnant, something Conrad hadn’t known at the time. She had returned to Boston and given birth to twins, a boy and a girl, naming them Frank and Vivian after Conrad’s parents.
Then she had hidden them away before embarking on a campaign of vengeance against Conrad, whom she blamed not only for breaking their engagement but also for the death of her railroad baron father, a criminal who had actually been murdered by his own partner in corruption. Pamela didn’t see it that way, and her lust for revenge had resulted in Rebel’s death and in numerous attempts on Conrad’s life, even after Pamela herself had been killed accidentally while trying to carry out one of her schemes.
One of her cruelest blows had come from beyond the grave, in a letter she’d written that was delivered to Conrad by one of her relatives. In that missive calculated to tear his heart out, she had informed him that he was a father and practically dared him to find his hidden children.
Since then, with the help of Arturo, a valet and all-around assistant who had come to be a good friend, Conrad had been on a cross-country search for the twins.
He knew Pamela had taken the children and set out from Boston for San Francisco. Fearing she might have stashed them somewhere, he had taken his time and asked questions about them at every settlement along the railroad. Because of that, he knew the twins had still been with Pamela when she had reached Nevada.
It wasn’t far to San Francisco, and every instinct in his body told him she had taken them with her all the way to the coast. He had decided to bypass the rest of the smaller settlements and head directly for the city by the bay. Although it was a gamble, his instincts told him it might pay off.
Arturo broke into his thoughts. “You’re brooding about Miss Tarleton and the children again, aren’t you, sir?”
Conrad sighed. “Sorry. I should be more worried about you right now.”
“Nonsense,” Arturo responded without hesitation. “I’m feeling much better, and Dr. Taggart says my condition is improving on a daily basis. In fact, he told me there’s no reason for you to remain here for the duration of my recuperative period. You can proceed to San Francisco any time you wish.”
Conrad smiled. “Are you sure Dr. Taggart said that, or is that you talking?”
“It’s true that I don’t wish to delay you”—Arturo rolled his eyes—“and Lord knows the evidence indicates you have a difficult time taking care of yourself without me around.”
“That’s true,” Conrad said, thinking of all the times Arturo had helped save his life.
“But you can ask the doctor for yourself if you’d like,” Arturo went on. “He and the nurses are perfectly capable of looking after me, and since all the financial arrangements have already been made with Mr. Turnbuckle”—Arturo shrugged—“there’s really no reason for you to stay, is there?”
“I suppose there’s not,” Conrad agreed. “Other than the fact that I’ll miss you.”
“I’ll be well enough to travel in another week or ten days, according to the doctor. At that time, I’ll come straightaway to San Francisco and contact Mr. Turnbuckle. You’ll keep him apprised of your current activities and whereabouts?”
“I’m sure I will.”
“Well, there you go. Good-bye. Have a good trip to ‘Frisco’.”
“I’ve heard the people who live there don’t like that name,” Conrad said with a smile.
“Perhaps not, but we don’t live there, do we?”
Grinning, Conrad shook his head. “Nope.” He put his hat on. “All right, I won’t argue with you. I’ll head for the train station right now and see when the next westbound is due.” He put out his hand. “Thanks for everything, Arturo. I’m sorry you may miss out on the end of this.”
“As long as your quest is successful, sir, that’s all I care about.” Arturo shook Conrad’s hand.
“I’m going to find the doctor and talk to him before I go, just to make sure he thinks it’s all right.”
“I would expect nothing less from you, sir.”
Dr. Liam Taggart, a middle-aged man with the sad face of a hound, nodded and agreed with Arturo’s suggestion when Conrad talked to him a few minutes later. “Mr. Vincenzo’s recovery is coming along splendidly. We’ll take good care of him. You can go on about your business without worrying, Mr. Browning.”
“I’m glad to hear that. If you need anything, Doctor, don’t hesitate to wire my attorneys in San Francisco. They’ll handle everything.”
Taggart nodded. “Of course.”
Conrad left the hospital. It was a beautiful day. The air was crystal-clear, and the mountains near Carson City seemed close enough to reach out and touch. As he gazed at the splendor around him, he avoided a certain area. He didn’t want to look at, or think about, Black Rock Canyon, the place where Rebel had died. Unfortunately, once those dark thoughts entered his head, it was almost impossible to banish them.
The sudden roar of a shot and the sound of a bullet whipping past his ear did the job.
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