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The Family Jensen: Helltown Massacre
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2011 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTen days earlier
When the sign was first put up, it read HALLTOWN, probably because the town's founder had been named Hall, Matt Jensen mused as he brought his horse to a stop and smiled. Some wag had crossed out the A and above it painted a somewhat shaky E, so the sign now welcomed travelers to HELLTOWN.
Funny, Matt thought, the settlement didn't look very hellish. It looked like hundreds of other Western cowtowns. Tucked into a rugged region of Nevada, it was surrounded by rangeland that rolled up to the snow-capped mountains visible in the distance. It was pretty country in its way. Matt wondered how the hunting would be in those mountains. He was willing to bet the fishing would be good in the icy streams tumbling down from the heights.
A few weeks of hunting, fishing, and just taking it easy sounded pretty good to him. He would pick up some supplies in the settlement and move on. Might spend one night here, he told himself, sleep in a real bed with a roof over his head for a change.
Matt Jensen was young, but his face bore the permanent tan of a man who spent most of his time outdoors. The slight squint around his pale blue eyes spoke of the same thing. Those eyes had seen a lot. The frontier often grew an hombre up fast ... either that or it killed him. The fact that Matt had survived revealed a lot about him.
So did the ease with which he carried the .44 double-action Colt on his right hip and the Bowie knife sheathed on his left. The stock of a Winchester .44-40 stuck up from a sheath strapped to his saddle. He rode a big sorrel and didn't have a pack horse. He was in the habit of traveling light. Everything he owned was in his saddlebags or rolled up in the bedroll tied on behind the saddle. That was the way of a wanderer.
And Lordy, Matt Jensen had done some wandering in his life, which he had begun with another name. Although he had never forgotten his murdered family, he considered his life to have really started on the day he met Smoke Jensen. Smoke had raised the youngster called Matt, becoming both adopted father and brother to him, teaching Matt everything he needed to know to survive on the frontier, but more important, teaching him to be a man. There was never any doubt in Matt's mind that when it came time for him to leave, he would take Smoke's last name.
Since striking out on his own, Matt had done a lot of things to make ends meet: cowboyed a little, ridden shotgun for various stage and freight lines, scouted for the army, cut trail for surveyors, guided wagon trains ... anything to make a little money and at the same time keep him from being tied down. Anything legal and honorable, that is. Smoke wouldn't have had it any other way, and Matt was the same.
But always, always, the lure of the unknown was there, calling him on, tantalizing him with the prospect of what might be on the other side of the next hill or the next river.
Those mountains he could see were sirens singing to him. He would heed their summons as soon as he could, but they were mountains, he reminded himself, and would still be there tomorrow.
As he rode into town, he noticed a large building under construction at the eastern end of the settlement. The frame and the rafters were up, but it didn't have any walls or roof yet. Judging by its size, shape, and placement in the community, Matt thought it looked like a railroad station. But there were no railroad tracks running into Halltown.
Maybe some spur line was building in this direction, he thought. The folks in town could know about it and be getting a jump on the depot. Often the station would be built and ready before the steel rails ever reached a settlement.
Matt reined the sorrel to a stop in front of Gibson's Mercantile. He swung down from the saddle and looped the horse's reins around a hitch rail. He had cast a thoughtful eye toward Temple's Saloon as he passed it, but told himself to deal with practical matters and buy supplies first. Once that was taken care of, he could wet his whistle. There might even be a pretty girl to flirt with.
He didn't have to go to the saloon for that, he realized as he walked into the general store, which seemed empty of customers. The tiny clinking sounds his spurs made were magnified by the high ceiling and echoed slightly as he went down a central aisle between rows of shelves filled with clothing, buckets, washboards, clothespins, pots and pans, chamber pots, bedding, lanterns, fancy lamps with shades, framed lithographs of famous paintings, rolled-up rugs, and scores of other odds and ends of daily life. Glass-fronted cases to the sides displayed candy and toys for the youngsters, and for the adults, knives, hatchets, axes, pistols, rifles, and shotguns. Barrels full of crackers and pickles sat in front of a counter that ran along the rear of the store. Beans, coffee, sugar, flour, and other staples were in barrels and bins behind the counter.
Also behind the counter was a young woman who smiled at Matt as he approached. She had red hair, a scattering of freckles across her face, and brilliant green eyes. "Can I help you, sir?"
Matt thumbed his hat back on his blond hair and returned the smile. "Ah, that lilt in your voice tells me you're from Ireland, and a prettier Irish Maureen I've not laid eyes on in a long time."
"How did you know?"
"That you're from Ireland?" Matt asked, a little surprised by her question.
"No, that my name is Maureen. Maureen Feruson, and 'tis only your eyes you'll be laying on me, good sir, and not even them if you don't stop being so bold about it. I have a good broom back here, and I don't mind using it to sweep trash out of my store."
She was smiling, but Matt had no doubt she meant what she said. Her eyes had turned fiery. He laughed. "I meant no disrespect, Miss Ferguson. It is Miss, isn't it?"
"'Tis." She nodded and looked pointedly at his hat. "And to whom am I speaking?"
He reached up and took off the Stetson, holding it in front of his blue, bib-front shirt. "My name is Matt Jensen, and it's an honor and a pleasure to meet you, Miss Ferguson."
"Jensen. That's a Scandahoovian name, isn't it?"
"So they say," Matt replied, not bothering to tell her that in his case, it was also an adopted name. "But I've never been any closer to Norway or Sweden than Kansas. I was born there. I'm afraid I haven't seen as much of the world as you have."
"World travel is vastly overrated," Maureen said. "At least, it is when you have to travel in steerage. I much prefer Nevada." For the first time, her smile disappeared. "At least I did."
Matt wanted to ask her what she meant by that, but before he could do so, she brightened again and went on, "Now, what can I do for you?"
"I need some supplies."
She nodded. "I'm not surprised. You have the look of a man who's just passing through. Flour, sugar, salt, coffee, maybe some beans and bacon?"
"Yes, ma'am. Couple weeks' worth of each, I reckon."
"That I can do. I'll put the order together. Can you come back in about an hour?"
"I'll do better than that," Matt said. "I'm going to be spending the night here, so there's no rush. I'll just come by in the morning and pick the things up when I'm ready to ride out."
"That'll be fine, if you're sure it won't inconvenience you."
"Not at all." He gestured toward his clothes, which were coated with a fine layer of trail dust. "I think I'm going to get a hotel room, clean up a little, and try to act civilized for a night. Can you recommend a hotel?"
"Of course. The Ferguson Hotel."
Matt tilted his head slightly. "Same name as yours."
"My Uncle Colin owns it, as he does this mercantile."
"The sign says Gibson's."
"'Twas Mr. Gibson who started the store. My uncle bought it from him several years ago and didn't see the need to change the name. The Fergusons are not vain people."
"Evidently not," Matt agreed. He put his hat on and gave the brim a tug. "I'm obliged to you for the help. If you want to figure up what the bill will be, I'd be glad to go ahead and pay you."
Maureen shook her head. "That won't be necessary. You can pay when you pick up the supplies in the morning."
"All right. Thanks." He gave her a friendly nod. He wanted to tell her that he had enjoyed the flirting, but decided she would probably think that was a mite too bold.
She might take that broom after him yet, and he didn't want that.
As Matt turned and walked up the aisle toward the double front doors of the mercantile a big shape filled the opening. Three men were coming into the store. The one in the lead was built like a mountain, tall and broad. He was sort of a dandy, wearing boots with fancy stitching on them, tight whipcord trousers tucked into those boots, an expensive shirt with mother-of-pearl snaps instead of buttons, and a cream-colored Stetson that looked like it had never seen much mud or sun. The only well-worn thing about the man was the butt of the revolver that stuck up from the holster on his hip.
Matt disliked the hombre on sight.
But he wasn't looking for trouble, so he moved easily to the side of the aisle as if he were looking at the overalls stacked on the shelves. He gave the big gent and the man's hard-faced companions a curt nod as they passed.
The sneer on the big man's face showed he thought Matt had stepped aside out of fear, and the man took that as his due. Matt had a good mind to point out to him just how wrong he was, but ... he wasn't looking for trouble and continued toward the door.
He stopped when he heard the fear in Maureen's voice as she asked, "What are you doing here, Mr. Talley? My uncle told you he didn't want your business."
As Matt turned and walked up the aisle toward the double front doors of the mercantile a big shape filled the opening.
"People don't tell me when they want my business, Maureen. I tell them when I'm going to give it to them. And I've asked you before to call me Judd."
"Are you here to give me some business, Mr. Talley?" Maureen still sounded afraid. Matt paused in the doorway to listen.
A burst of lewd laughter came from the two men with Judd Talley. He joined in with them. "I reckon you could call it that."
Matt's jaw tightened until a muscle jerked. He swung around, and his voice rang out clear and strong, echoing against the high ceiling. "By God, that's enough!"
Chapter TwoLike panthers, the two smaller gunmen whirled toward him. They reached for their guns, and Matt was ready to hook and draw. He figured he would have to kill them fast, to minimize the danger of Maureen getting hit by a stray bullet.
But before anybody could clear leather, Judd was between his friends and Matt, holding out his hands in a placating gesture. "Hold it, boys, hold it," he murmured. "No need for gunplay here."
Or maybe it was just a matter of if anybody was going to show off, it was going to be him.
Matt watched all three closely. If any of them made a move, he intended to burn powder.
"Did you have something you wanted to say, friend?" Judd asked in a mocking drawl. He hooked his thumbs behind his gunbelt.
"You heard me," Matt snapped. "I said that's enough. Miss Ferguson doesn't want you here, and where I come from, a man doesn't talk like that to a lady."
"Where you come from." Judd repeated. "Where's that?"
"Colorado." That was where Smoke's Sugarloaf Ranch was located, and the ranch was as close to a home as Matt had. Smoke and his wife Sally, and the old mountain man called Preacher, were the only people in the world Matt considered family.
"Well, you're not in Colorado anymore, and around here, I say and do as I please. You'd better remember that if you don't want to get hurt."
One of the other men spoke up, saying, "Yeah, you don't know who you're bracin', saddle tramp. This here is Judd Talley." He said the name like it ought to mean something.
Matt shook his head and smiled faintly. "Sorry, I can't keep track of every cheap, two-bit gunman west of the Mississippi."
Judd's contemptuous grin vanished. He lost his casual stance and squared up toward Matt as he snarled a bitter curse.
Matt knew he had pushed the confrontation right back into being a shooting matter. He didn't regret it. He had seen dozens of men like Judd Talley. They were a blight on the Western landscape.
Of course, he didn't know how fast that fella might be, he reminded himself. It might be the day Matt Jensen crossed the divide, but his instincts told him otherwise.
Before things could go any further, Maureen Ferguson came out from behind the counter and screamed, "Stop it! Stop it, you fools! I won't have anybody dying in here!"
Judd nodded toward the street and asked in a tight voice, "What say we take this outside, Colorado?"
"Fine by me." Matt backed toward the doorway.
He had just stepped onto the high porch in front of the mercantile when a pair of hard metal rings pressed against his back. Even through his shirt, he knew the twin muzzles of a shotgun when he felt them. He stiffened. If both barrels of that scattergun went off, they would blow him in two, literally. His bottom half might fall one way and his top half the other.
"Keep backin', mister," a man's voice told him. "Just keep backin', and keep your hand away from that gun."
Matt had no choice but to do as the shotgun-wielder commanded. The man sounded tense and nervous, even scared, and that was a mighty bad combination in a man who had a Greener against your back.
"Take it easy." Matt took a couple more steps backward. He kept his hands well away from his body.
"That's far enough."
Judd Talley and his friends came out of the store. "What are you doing, Sheriff ?" Judd demanded. "This is none of your business. Just stay out of it."
"No, sir. Any blood spilled in my town is my business. When somebody told me there was fixin' to be a shootout in Gibson's store, I hustled right down here."
Judd sneered again. "It's just some blasted saddle tramp. Nobody'll give a damn if I kill him."
"No killin'." The sheriff was trying to sound firm and in command, but Matt could tell it was hard for him. Even armed with a shotgun, the lawman was a little afraid of Judd and the other two hard-cases. "You and your pards just go on now, Judd."
"What about that smart-mouth drifter?" Judd demanded as he gestured with his left hand toward Matt.
"I'll lock him up for disturbin' the peace. All right?"
Maureen had followed the men out of the store. Stepping forward on the porch she said, "That's not fair, Sheriff. Mr. Jensen didn't do anything except chastise these hooligans for being disrespectful to me."
A crowd was gathering on the boardwalks on both sides of the street. Any potentially violent fracas always brought gawkers out of the woodwork in frontier settlements. From the corner of his eye, Matt saw one man separate himself from the crowd and walk quickly across the street toward the general store. The man moved awkwardly with a limp and used a cane, but despite that he didn't waste any time.
"It sounds to me, Sheriff, like it's Talley and his bully boys you should be arresting," the man said. "They were harassing my niece, and I won't stand for it."
"Dadgummit, Mr. Ferguson, don't get mixed up in this," the sheriff muttered.
"I already am. That's my niece, and they were in my store."
"I'm not gonna arrest Judd and his pards. Wouldn't do no good. You know Mr. Longacre'd just bail 'em right out and pay any fine the judge levied against 'em."
"And I know that Judge Hiram Dunwoodie, venerable jurist that he is, would probably just dismiss the case with a stern warning, seeing as those men work for Cyrus Longacre." Ferguson sighed. "All right, then. Don't arrest anyone. Just order the combatants to disperse."
Judd threw his hands in the air in disgust. "God, this is stupid!" he burst out. "All you people do is talk, talk, talk. It makes my head hurt. Come on, boys. Let's get back out to camp."
He stalked to the end of the porch, stomped down the stairs to the street, and went to a hitch rack in front of the next building. His steely-eyed companions followed him.
"You're going to let them go when they're the ones who caused the trouble, Sheriff?" Matt asked in a low voice.
Excerpted from The Family Jensen: Helltown Massacre by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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