A GOOD DAY TO DIE
By Edward T. Johnson
(discovered by Brad Mengel)
Edward T. Johnson was a prolific Australian author working mainly in the Western genre in the ’60s and ’70s. His most famous series, The Range Riders, featured hard-riding gunslingers: Christopher McGann, Matt Fortune, and the Apache Scout, Hunter Hollick. The Range Riders rode through the Old West righting wrongs and making the frontier safe. Johnson then branched out with various spin-off series and stand-alone novels.
In 1975, he attempted to break into men’s adventure with a series featuring Hunter Hollick’s great-grandson Dalton as a Mafia buster in the mould of Don Pendleton’s The Executioner. According to his commentary in the anthology, “Johnson’s Jubilee,” he wanted to call the series The Wind Walker, but Flying Coyote Press changed the name to Apache Blood.
Often cited as the hardest of Johnson’s books to find, copies often sell for over $100 on eBay. BRAD MENGEL was lucky enough to find a dog-eared copy at an antiques store hidden under a pile of horror movie tie-in novels priced at 50 cents each. He haggled the owner down to 35 cents.
The quiet of the desert was broken by the roar of dune buggy and trail bike engines. The two Apache warriors looked down from their vantage point on the mesa. The older of the men watched through binoculars, observing the progress of the Mafia button men.
The older Apache motioned to his grandson. “I think today is a good day to die, Dalton.”
The younger man pulled the trigger of his rifle. The left tyre of the lead dune buggy exploded, causing it to flip, disgorging the hit men. Two of the four men were crushed as the buggy landed on them.
The shooter looked away from the scope on his rifle. “It will be for them,” he said with grim determination. There was a flash of pain in his eyes as he remembered what brought him to this point.
Three months earlier, Trooper Dalton Hollick had been called in to the office of Captain Vern O’Sala of the Special Branch of the Arizona State Troopers, known as The Rangers. Dalton’s whipcord frame, perched on the edge of the seat, reminded the captain of the grace and fluidity of a puma.
O’Sala resisted the urge to order the young officer to get a haircut. As an undercover officer, Dalton was subject to modified grooming standards. O’Sala gave Dalton his assignment. “The organised crime team have evidence to suggest that the Scambini crime family have expanded. They’ve asked for our assistance. I want you to shake some sources and see what intel we can gather.”
For the next three days, Dalton worked the streets. Some thought he was a dealer working to finance an Indian uprising; others figured him as just a low-level career criminal. On the fourth day, the undercover Ranger struck gold as a goombah made him an offer he couldn’t refuse—an audience with Don Louis Scambini.
The Mafia don sat beside the pool of his mansion, sipping espresso. The gold chain glinted off his bare chest as he watched the new girls from his club dive into the water. The girls frolicked. The lines of coke they had just snorted had lowered their inhibitions, and they started kissing. Don Louis considered expanding into the porno business; he’d get his consigliere to look into it once he dealt with the Indian.
Reluctantly, the don pulled his eyes away from the debauchery as one of his bodyguards informed him that Dalton had arrived. The silver-haired mafioso pulled on a robe, tied the sash over his expansive waist, and walked into the house. The bodyguard did not follow.
Another bodyguard stood watch over Dalton as the don entered the room. “How, Chief!” Don Louis greeted the undercover lawman, his arm up with the palm out. “I want to smoke the peace pipe.” The bodyguard laughed at his boss’ joke.
“Cut the crap, you paleface asshole,” Dalton snapped at the mob boss. “That’s why we will rise up against you.”
The don plopped down behind his desk and pulled out a bundle of cash from the drawer. “Quit the shit, Tonto, I know why you’ve been sniffing around. Here’s twenty-five thousand for your war chest; now back off. You’re not the Lone Ranger.”
Dalton noticed the insulting tone and the emphasis on the word ranger. Protocol dictated that he take the money to make his case, but the smug Mafia chieftain’s condescending attitude angered the young law officer. His Apache blood boiled. He threw the cash into the don’s face and walked out before the bodyguard could react.
Dalton reported the incident to Captain O’Sala and spent the rest of the day filling out paperwork. At the end of the shift, he returned home, drained and exhausted by the endless red tape that seemed to constantly take him off the street and hamper his effectiveness.
But as soon as he saw that the front door of his house had been kicked in, all traces of fatigue left his body. He pulled his .45 and stalked through the house. The ground floor was clear, but there were signs of a struggle in the kitchen and potato chips scattered through the TV room. Dalton felt fear course through his body. Naomi would never have left the room in that state.
A muffled scream came from above. Dalton resisted the urge to race upstairs. He reacted as the Apache warrior he had been trained to be by his grandfather. The lessons from his childhood came instinctively as he moved silently up the stairs.
The first thing he saw was the door to his son’s room and the pool of blood seeping under it. Another cry came from the master bedroom. Dalton moved down the hallway like the wind. The open door exposed the sight of a tall, swarthy man leaning over his wife with a scalpel.
An Apache rage overtook Dalton’s reason as he let loose with a war whoop. The swarthy man turned to find the barrel of Dalton’s gun whipped across his face, knocking him unconscious.
Dalton looked at the blood-soaked bed and the brutalised body of his wife. He’d heard rumours of the “turkey doctors,” but this was the first time he’d seen their handiwork. The ruined body of his wife showed him the extent of their sadistic depravity. Her lidless eyes stared at him, as her split and busted lips struggled to form words before she gave a loud sigh and died in his arms.
There would be time to mourn later. There was a chance Brendan might still be alive. Dalton moved to his son’s room. Horror clenched at his gut as he opened the door.
Brendan’s body lay on the floor. The intruder had stabbed the boy and slit his throat. The young boy had fought and died hard. Dalton felt his heart torn from his chest as the child he loved, his legacy, lay still.
With a savage fury, Dalton returned to the unconscious turkey doctor and woke the man. The scalpel, still slick with his wife’s blood, now went to work on its former master. The groggy torturer awoke to feel the tip touching the edge of his lower eyelid.
“Too bad there’s no ant-hill around here,” Dalton said with an evil grin. “Us Apaches like using them, but I’ll improvise.”
The turkey doctor emptied his bladder. Dalton looked with disgust at the wet patch and started his interrogation. Before long, the turkey doctor quickly spilled everything he knew about Don Scambini’s operations throughout Arizona, including the fact that it was Scambini’s order to kill Dalton’s family.
He pulled his pistol and pointed it at the man who had killed his wife and son. If he did this, he knew that his time as a lawman was over.
The bullet left the barrel of the 1911A Colt pistol at 825 feet per second and entered the skull of the turkey doctor. It ploughed through the brain, exited the back of the head, and buried itself in the floor of the bedroom before the sound of the gunshot stopped ringing in Dalton’s ears.
There was no going back now. The turkey doctor was Dalton’s first kill. All that mattered now was revenge on everyone responsible for the death of his family.
He grabbed a duffel bag. As he moved through the house he filled the bag with weapons, including the tomahawk Naomi had bought him for his birthday, and other items he would need for his war on the Scambinis. The last item he added was a family photo. The smiling faces of his wife and son would be how he hoped to remember his family and not the bloody corpses that were currently searing into his memory.
Dalton set fire to the home he’d made. The investigators would assume that the turkey doctor’s body was his. If everyone thought Dalton dead, it would give him greater freedom to strike at his enemies.
Leaving the house, Dalton made sure that no one saw him as he made way to his jet-black gelding, Desperado. The horse was stabled on the outskirts of Phoenix. As the young man saddled up, he dwelt on his loss and how he would make Don Scambini pay.
Dalton’s first order of business was to find his grandfather, Mark Hollick. The older Hollick was a former trooper. Since his retirement, he had returned to the reservation, immersing himself in the tribal ways. Dalton had last spoken to him a week ago when the old man called before going into the desert wild on a vision quest.
The ex-Ranger pushed his horse hard to make his grandfather’s campsite before dawn. The Arizona sun was brutal at this time of year. Dalton did not want to be riding in the daylight. Several miles out of town Desperado picked up a stone and could no longer be ridden. The smart move would have been to find shelter from the sun, but Dalton needed to assure himself that his grandfather was alright.
Dalton’s wiry frame wandered across the Arizona Plains, leading his horse. His black Levis were dusty after the hard ride. His raven black hair drooped over his dark face, his hat long ago blown from his head, dangling down his back held by the chinstrap.
The campsite he sought was not far, but the heat made it feel like a thousand miles. Desperado stumbled and fell. Dalton tried to get the horse to rise, but it was done. Dalton forced himself to stand, lacking even the energy to brush the alkali flakes off his shirt. He knew that he was exhausted, but he refused to give up until he found his Granpappy Mark’s camp.
He staggered another three steps, stumbled, and fell. Barely conscious, he dragged himself onto his hands and knees and crawled over the next mound. The sight he saw was enough to energise him. Dalton could barely stand but he managed to stagger into the camp he’d been desperately seeking.
Mark Hollick cooked a jackrabbit for his lunch, when he looked up to see the dusty figure of his grandson collapse in front of him. The old man moved to his grandson’s side.
“They’re all dead,” Dalton croaked through his parched throat and passed out.
Over the next few days, Mark cared for his grandson. The physical wounds and exhaustion soon left the young man, but the psychological damage was far more severe. It seemed that revenge was the only thing that mattered anymore. Mark worried that the Apache blood of his grandson was too strong and the young man was on a path to self-destruction.
The old man knew too well his grandson’s pain and need for revenge. In the 1930s he’d ridden the vengeance trail, bringing terror to the White Hood cross burners as Wind Walker. Mourning the loss of his granddaughter-in-law and great-grandson, the old man once again felt the pull.
When the younger man was physically capable, the pair left the camp and made their way to a nearby mesa. They built a medicine lodge. As the older man conducted the Wind Walker ceremonies, Dalton swore vengeance on the Scambini crime family over the smoke of several burning medicine pouches. Mark then showed him the war paint of the Wind Walker. The older Apache sang the old songs of the vengeance trail as he threw several medicine bags into the flames. The contents made different-colored plumes of smoke. Dalton stood beside the fire clad in a breechclout and a pair of moccasins.
“Who seeks to ride the vengeance trail?” Mark asked in Apache.
“I am Dalton Hollick. The blood of the Apache people flows through my veins.”
With the blade of his tomahawk, Dalton slashed his right palm and made a fist. After the blood dripped through his fingers, he put a bloody handprint on his chest.
“I found my family murdered. Their spirits cry on the wind for me to avenge them. I give me solemn oath to heed their cries and walk the vengeance trail.”
As Dalton made his vow, Mark applied his war paint, singing songs of the Wind Walker. The blue lines on the cheek bones symbolised the wind calling for vengeance. The two red lines running down his cheeks signified the blood debt to be paid.
After the ceremony, the old man led them to his Jeep, parked south of the campsite. The pair drove in silence as they moved through the desert towards the ghost town of Suggerton. (Check out the The Range Riders adventure novel Sugger’s Folly for why the town is deserted. Available wherever books are sold.) Dalton looked in amazement as his grandfather parked behind the saloon and pulled open the doors of a bomb shelter.
“I had this built just before you were born,” the old man declared. “The shelter will be your base of operations.”
Dalton looked around at the weapons and equipment that his grandfather had stockpiled in case of a nuclear assault on America. He knew that he couldn’t ask for a better base.
According to the intel from the turkey doctor, there was a shipment of laundered money coming in from the Turtolini crime family over in Texas on the first Monday of the month. Scambini had a business relationship with Luca “The Turtle” Turtolini. Dalton had read as much in the Scambini file when he was still a Ranger. While the Turtle’s driver would take different routes from Texas to Phoenix, the Scambinis always had the money delivered to the same safe house in Queen Creek. The strange thing was that the delivery never happened if a raid was planned by any law enforcement agency.
The Hollicks scouted the safe house, identifying all the escape routes and assessing their security. The property was owned by Salvatore Lettieri, one of the Scambini’s lieutenants and top leg breakers back in the ’50s. The old man was supposedly retired, but when they saw him in the garden, Lettieri looked like he could still take care of himself.
Lettieri shared the house with a woman the Apaches assumed was his wife. It was difficult to prepare for the woman’s reaction to the planned attack. A respectable wife of her age might faint, but a retired moll would likely join the battle.
The day of the delivery, the Lettieris received a visitor, a young man who might have been their son visiting for dinner, except for the gun under his jacket that marked him as Mafia muscle.
An hour later a green car with Texas plates pulled up in the drive. Two hard men stepped out of the vehicle with a suitcase and walked into the house. Twenty minutes later the Texans left. Dalton and his grandfather got into position.
The muscle shook hands with Lettieri at the front door and walked out with the suitcase the Texans had carried in earlier. He opened the front door of his gray coupe and dropped the suitcase into the passenger seat. The young man turned to Lettieri, but whatever he planned to say to the older man was lost as an arrow pierced his throat and severed his vocal cords. The young man grabbed for his neck as the life seeped out of his body.
Lettieri reached for the gun under his armpit when he saw Dalton racing towards him. The handgun was barely clear of the holster when the head of the tomahawk buried itself in the old mafioso’s leg, severing the femoral artery. A geyser of blood erupted from the wound. It was a only a matter of seconds before the old man lost consciousness and less than a minute before Lettieri was dead.
Dalton had been far enough away to avoid the arterial spray, but the woman standing behind Lettieri had not been so fortunate. As she screamed Salvatore’s name, she stepped forward and brought up a sawed-off shotgun she’d been concealing behind the door jamb. An arrow whizzed through the air where her head had been a fraction of a second earlier and buried itself in the door.
The old woman was the threat they had feared. Dalton had to react quickly. A shotgun was deadly at that range, and his grandfather would not have enough time for another arrow. His options were to move away and hope that the pellets had spread enough to avoid serious injury or to move in under the pellets before they spread too much. Dalton chose the latter and dove under the projectiles as she fired. He curled his body in a tight roll, landed on his feet, and sprang upright right in front of the woman. He brought up his right fist and smashed her jaw. Her teeth snapped together as her head whipped backwards and she lapsed into unconsciousness.
Dalton cursed under his breath. He did not like to hit women, but more disturbing was the attention that the shotgun blast would bring. Typical response time for Phoenix PD was five minutes, give or take. They had to pull out now. Dalton gave the call of the spotted owl, the prearranged signal for retreat. Then he let out an Apache war whoop and scalped Lettieri’s lifeless corpse.
The former lawman grabbed the suitcase, then rushed to remove any evidence and retrieve any weapons. As he tried to pull the arrow from the front door, the shaft snapped, leaving the head. Dalton walked down the drive and climbed into his grandfather’s jeep. As the two men drove off, Dalton looked over his haul: the shotgun; two .38 Smith & Wesson revolvers; and half a million in untraceable bills.
This was the first of several raids against various Scambini criminal enterprises. In all cases Dalton let out a war cry and scalped at least one of the criminals he had killed. Not that Scambini made things easy for the vigilantes. Guards had been increased on many of the high-money targets. On their most recent run, hitting an illegal casino, the vigilantes were followed by two vehicles as they made their escape. They lost them, but the damage had been done. They had let them get too close. The Mafia now had enough information to start searching for the men.
Dalton and his grandfather knew it was only a matter of time before they were found. They set up an ambush from a mesa twenty miles away from Suggerton and waited. From the moment the Cessna buzzed over the desert and spotted the Jeep parked in the open, the two Apache warriors anticipated the roar of the dune buggy and trail bikes.
“I think today’s a good day to die, Dalton,” the older man intoned as his grandson pulled the trigger. The tyre of the dune buggy exploded.
“It will be for them.” The younger man replied as he viewed the devastation of Mafia goons before pulling the trigger again. He watched as the dark Perspex face shield imploded under the bullet’s pressure. The remaining rider spun his bike in a tight turn that flung the desert sand as he fled the scene.
That left the two survivors of the dune buggy. Dalton handed his grandfather the rifle and slid down the rope on the side of the mesa. As he moved towards the men, the handle of his tomahawk beat a reassuring tattoo on his thigh. He had his gun ready for trouble like he’d been trained at the academy. The first man he came to was a curly-haired goombah with neatly trimmed moustache and a neck that bent at an unnatural angle.
Dalton moved carefully toward the last man. He looked a bit older. Dalton hoped that this meant he was the leader. The Apache moved closer. It appeared that the Italian was unconscious. Dalton moved in to check for a pulse. A fistful of sand flew into his face as the man leapt up. The cunning mobster had been playing possum.
As the grit of the sand buried itself into his hazel eyes, Dalton dropped his gun. As soon as it hit the desert floor, the Apache avenger knew that he had made a mistake. He sensed, rather than saw, the tough mafioso dive for the weapon. Acting on some primitive instinct within his Apache blood, Dalton pulled the tomahawk and sent the blunt side of the axe smashing into his opponent’s temple. The mafioso dropped like he’d been deboned.
The mobster returned to consciousness with a pounding headache, not helped by the hammering he heard. The smell of a wood fire wafted into his nostrils. The man tried to sit up, but he found that his arms and legs had been staked out. The sun beat down on his naked body. He felt a heat on his thighs that was too hot even for the desert sun. Antonio “Tough Tony” D’Allesandro was suddenly very scared as he craned his neck to see around him.
An old Indian sat between his feet. Between the hammering sounds Antonio heard chanting. The hammering stopped, and an Indian face covered in war paint appeared in his field of vision.
“Wh-what’s happening?” stammered the Mafia hard man.
The Indian smiled with no warmth or humour. “Let’s call it an Apache truth ceremony. There’s a small fire between your legs which will get larger. Hot coals will be placed onto your body, searing through your skin.”
As if on cue, a couple of sparks leapt from the fire to his hairy belly. Tough Tony squirmed. “You’ll get nuttin’ from me,” he said unconvincingly.
“That’s fine,” Dalton continued, his face impassive. “The fire will roast your prick, and your balls will burst like popcorn kernels. I’ve bet the left one will go first.”
The blood drained from Tony’s face as he thought about his reputation. No woman would want a man with a fried pecker. With that, Tough Tony burst like a dam, spilling all the information about his boss’s operation, including Scambini’s meeting the next night at the construction site on Indian School Road.
Tough Tony wept as he felt the fire being extinguished and his bonds cut. Dalton helped him to his feet. “Phoenix is that way. Tell Scambini I’m coming to get him.”
The construction site on Indian School Road was a mob operation. The concrete foundations contained the bodies of a snooping journalist, a stoolie, and a club girl who had rejected Scambini’s advances. During the day it was a hive of activity. At night it became a clandestine meeting ground.
Two low-level soldiers stood guard. Sol the Shiv had brought a Thermos of hot coffee to ward off the chill night air. He shared it with Mikey the Mooch.
“I can’t see nuttin’,” the Mooch complained, as he downed his third cup of java.
“John Wayne said that’s when you have to worry about an Injun.” The Shiv’s hand hovered over his pistol.
“I thought that was Clint Eastwood,” said the Mooch. Regardless of who gave the advice, its accuracy was soon proven as an arrow pierced Sol’s right eye. The Mooch dropped his coffee and fumbled for his revolver, but an arrow made its way into his heart.
Dalton moved swiftly and silently onto the construction site, his pistol ready for almost anything. The sound of voices wafted on the night air as he moved through the partially completed building, seeking the men responsible for the death of his family.
“Are you sure it’s not that asshole from California scalping my people? I heard he likes to leave arrowheads, and he hit Vegas recently,” Dalton heard the angry voice of Don Scambini growl.
“Lou, I told you it can’t be. The FBI had reports of him in New Orleans, and they say he doesn’t scalp people,” replied a familiar voice. “I think we have a renegade Apache running around.”
Captain Vern O’Sala. Dalton stopped, stunned at the revelation. The gruff older cop had never been overly friendly towards him, but to think that he would sell out his team for some extra cash was nearly impossible. Dalton felt his blood boil. His anger overtook his common sense, and he let loose an Apache war cry. He dived and rolled into the area where the two men stood. The Indian’s first shot barrelled into the forehead of the Mafia chieftain, ending the life of the man who ordered the death of his family.
As the Indian lawman turned to deal immediate justice to his former boss, he found himself on the receiving end of a vicious punch. Dalton’s head spun, droplets of blood spraying across the room. He lost hold of the gun. It skittered along the floor, coming to rest in a corner.
“I should have known you wouldn’t be dead,” the captain declared as he raised his leg to launch a brutal kick at Dalton’s ribs. O’Sala had come up from the streets, and his time behind a desk had not softened the man. The steel toes of his boots struck the younger man hard.
“You should have taken the money and joined us.”
It hurt Dalton just to breathe as he rolled away from another kick. His vengeance trail seemed to be at an end. He cursed mentally that his grandfather was watching for intrusions from outside.
Dalton pulled his tomahawk and used it to block the captain’s next kick. The sharpened axe bit deeply into the captain’s right calf. Sinews and tendons parted under the force of the blade, which only stopped with a sickening thud as it struck bone.
The strength of the blow sent the captain off balance, and he collapsed to the floor. Dalton was on the warpath, taking all his rage and grief out on the corrupt officer who sold his family’s future to line his pockets with blood money. His hands wrapped around O’Sala’s throat and tightened. Several minutes later, Dalton relaxed his grip and returned to his senses. He’d never know if the older man bled to death or if he had suffocated. He didn’t really care. Dalton stood painfully and retrieved his tomahawk. He then undertook the grisly task of scalping both men. These would be the final two scalps he would claim in his war on crime, but not the last lives.
Mark came down from his sniper’s nest. He remembered that riding the vengeance trail was a lonely path, and he would help Dalton in anyway he could. He found Dalton standing over the bodies of the two men.
“It is done,” the old man intoned.
Dalton knew it was not. He could never return to conventional law enforcement as long as there were criminals willing to subvert and undermine justice, to tear apart and destroy families with their actions. He vowed on the scalps in his blood-soaked hands that he would fight on.
Brad Mengel works in Australia’s criminal justice system. His book Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction: An Encyclopedia from Able Team to Z-Comm (McFarland 2009) was the first book to examine vigilante fiction of the ’70s and ’80s. He has also contributed stories to Tales of the Shadowmen, Pro Se Presents, and Pulp Obscura anthologies.