Read an Excerpt
Law of the Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1989 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
He hoped this would be the last winter storm of the season. Probably wouldn't be, but there is that line about hope springing eternal.
He just wished it was spring. Period.
Smoke Jensen sat in a cave over a fire and boiled the last of his coffee. He knew he was in Idaho. He guessed somewhere south of Montpelier. All he knew for certain was that he was cold, and he was being hunted by a large group of men. He knew why he was cold; he didn't really have a clear idea why he was being hunted.
He poured a cup of scalding strong coffee and fed a few more sticks to the fire, then leaned back against the stone wall of the cavern and once more went over events in his mind.
Sally's parents had come but from the East for a visit. Why they had chosen to come to northern Colorado in the middle of winter was still a mystery to Smoke. It was so cold during the winter, that when someone died the body was placed in a cave until spring when the ground thawed and a hole could be dug.
It was colder here in Idaho, Smoke mentally griped, his big hands soaking up the warmth from the tin cup.
Dagger, Smoke's big mountain-bred horse chomped on some grass Smoke had dug up for him.
Then the baby had taken sick — some sort of lung ailment — and Sally's father had suggested they go to Arizona for the winter. Smoke had no desire to go to Arizona and there were a few things he needed to tend to around the spread.
With the house empty and matters tended to, Smoke became restless. The pull of the High Lonesome tugged at him. He saddled up and rode out one cold but sunshiny morning.
He didn't have any particular place in mind. He just wanted to be one with the mountains again. Damn near got himself killed doing it. And wasn't out of the fire yet.
He had headed northwest out of Colorado, staying on the west side of the Continental Divide, angling northwest. He did all right until he came to a little town on the Bear River, just about on the border, he reckoned. He had stopped at the general store to resupply and then to have a drink of whiskey. Not normally a drinking man, Smoke visited the saloons more for news than for booze, although in this sort of weather, a shot of whiskey did feel good going down.
Smoke was tall, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, and ruggedly handsome, with cold brown eyes. Smoke Jensen, called the last mountain man by some, was the hero of countless penny dreadfuls sold all over the country. He was also known as the fastest gun in the West. He wore two guns: on the left a .44 worn high and butt-forward for a cross-draw, on the right a .44 worn low and tied down.
When Smoke had been just a young boy, he was taken under the wing of a cantankerous old mountain man named Preacher. Preacher had taught the boy well, watching him practice with those deadly guns as they traveled all over the Northwest.
Outlaws had raped and killed Smoke's first wife and cold-bloodedly murdered their newborn son. Smoke had tracked them all down and killed them, then rode into the outlaw town that had been their headquarters and shot it out with the killers' friends. His reputation was then carved in granite.
He poured another cup of cowboy coffee and let his mind drift back a few days.
"Whiskey," Smoke told the barkeep. "Out of the good bottle."
The saloon had quieted as Smoke walked in, something that did not escape his attention. He paid little mind, though. A stranger appearing out of the dead of winter always drew attention.
Especially one who wore his guns like Smoke wore his.
"We don't serve no Box T riders in here, mister," the barkeep warned.
Smoke's eyes turned colder than the weather outside. "I don't ride for the Box T. I don't even know where it is or what it is. Now pour the drink." He laid money on the bar.
A man walked up behind Smoke, spurs jingling. "I say you're a liar. I say you're one of that old man and woman's hands. And I say you ain't gonna buy no drink in here. I say —"
Whatever the loudmouth was going to say, he didn't get the chance to finish it. Smoke spun and hit the man smack in the teeth with one big, work-hardened fist. The cowboy's eyes were rolling back in his head and he was out cold before he hit the floor.
Smoke shifted positions, moving to the end of the bar closest to the door so he could keep an eye on the rest of the riders in the room.
"Pour the damn drink!" Smoke told the barkeep. "And make it out of a new bottle. Let me see you pry the cork and pour!"
"Yes, sir!" the barkeep barked. "Right now. Then will you please get the hell out of here?"
"I'll think about it." Smoke held the glass in his left hand. His right hand was hidden by the bar. His right hand was close to the butt of his .44. Out of habit, he always slipped the hammer-thong from his .44 as soon as his boots left the stirrups and touched the ground.
Preacher's lessons stayed with him.
"Mister," the voice came from a table near the back of the room. "That there is Jud Vale on the floor. He's gonna kill you when he gets up."
"If he doesn't handle his guns any better than he flaps his mouth he's going to be in for another surprise."
"You won't say that to his face"
Smoke laughed at the man.
"You can't take all of us," another voice added.
"Bastard looks like Perkins, don't he?" yet another said.
Perkins? Smoke thought. Who is Perkins? "Maybe not. But I can kill the first six or eight. Anybody want to start?"
Apparently, no one did. No more voices were heard.
Smoke sipped his drink as Jud Vale moaned and stirred on the floor. "Isn't anyone going to help this stumblebum up?"
Several men stood up and warily approached the groaning Jud Vale. All of them keeping an eye on Smoke, who was standing by the bar smiling at their antics. Whoever this Perkins person was, he was respected, for sure.
"You a dead man, Perkins, or whoever you are," one of the men said, helping Jud to his feet. "You got one boot in the grave now."
Jud Vale, his bloody mouth puffy, glared at Smoke. "I'm gonna let you ride, you punk!" he snarled. "Take this message back to Burden: I'm gonna kill him and then run that old broad off the land. You tell him I said that."
Smoke started to tell the man that his name wasn't Perkins and he didn't know anybody named Burden.
Then he thought better of it. He'd play along for a time.
The idea of somebody like this loudmouth Jud Vale bothering some old couple rankled him.
Smoke nodded, finished his whiskey and then backed away from the bar. finding the doorknob with his left hand. He stepped out into the cold blowing winds and closed the door behind him.
He stopped at a farmhouse a few miles from town, spotting a man carrying a slop bucket out to his hogs.
"Mister, where can I find the Box T spread?"
"South of here. It's right around Bear Lake. You got any sense you'll stay away from there."
"'Cause Jud Vale wants it, that's why. And whatever Jud Vale wants, he gits. Now you git!" Smoke got.
Jud Vale's men came after him hard. So far, not a killing shot had been fired from either side, but Jud's men kept Smoke in a box, warning him back with well-placed rifle shots and causing Smoke to wonder what in the hell was going on.
He was south of Montpelier, a town settled by the Mormons back in '63, first known as Clover Creek and later as Belmont; Brigham Young gave it its present name. He was not too far from the Oregon Trail. Smoke was close to Bear Lake and the Box T spread, but could not figure out a way to get to the place without killing some of Jud Vale's men, and that was something he did not want to do. Not just yet, anyway.
How do I get myself in these messes? he wondered, drinking the last of his coffee. All I wanted to do was see some country, not fight a war.
He walked to the front of the cave and looked out. It was getting light, and soon the hunt would continue. Smoke sighed and did his best to keep his patience. He didn't want to get riled up. When Smoke Jensen got angry, somebody was sure to get hurt.
Dagger snorted and scraped a steel-shod hoof on the floor of the cave. The big horse was getting restless, and was letting Smoke know it.
"All right, Dag," Smoke said, turning to walk back into the wider area of the cave. "I'm getting tired of it myself."
Smoke packed and saddled up, then checked his guns. He led the big horse outside and swung into the saddle, riding with his Winchester across the saddle horn.
"We're headin' for the Box T, Dag. And come Hell or high water or Jud Vale, we're going to make it."
The big horse shook his head as if in agreement.
He had not gone a mile before he saw smoke from a fire. Dagger's ears perked up as he caught the scent of other horses. Smoke smiled grimly. "You wanna go visit that camp, boy? All right. Let's just do that."
When he got close, Smoke dismounted and slipped nearer — on foot. A half-dozen of Vale's men were huddled around a fire, drinking coffee and eating bacon. Smoke recognized several of them from the saloon.
He lifted his rifle and plugged the coffeepot, then dented the frying pan with another round. He put several more rounds directly into the fire, scattering hot coals all around the clearing and sending gunhands scrambling for what cover they could find.
He emptied his rifle into a tree where the horses were picketed and several of them panicked, reared up, and broke loose, taking off into the timber.
Chuckling, Smoke ran back to Dagger, swung into the saddle, and skirted the camp, heading for the Box T range on the Bear.
He had sure ruined breakfast for those ol' boys.
As he rode, he saw smoke from several more fires, but decided not to press his luck.
Twice he heard the sounds of horses and men and both times he slipped back into the timber and waited it out as the men rode past him. And they came close enough for him to see that Jud Vale really meant business. He recognized Don Draper, the Utah gunslick, and Davy Street, the outlaw from down New Mexico way. As the second bunch rode by him, Smoke picked out Cisco Webster, the Texas gunny; Barstow, a no-good from Colorado; Glen Regan, a punk kid who fancied himself a gunfighter; and Highpockets, a long lean drink of water who was as dangerous as a grizzly and as quick as a striking rattler.
What the hell was going on in this part of southeastern Idaho?
Smoke rode on as the day started to warm some.
He began to see cattle wearing the Box T brand, really no sure sign that he was on Box T land, for cattle wandered miles to grass, but Smoke figured he was getting close.
Then he found out why the cattle were so scattered — miles of cut fences. Somebody, probably Jud Vale and his men, had really caused some damage.
He topped a ridge and could see, far in the distance, a house and barn, and off to the south, a winding road leading to the house. He cut toward the road, riding slowly and cautiously, for if those in the house were under siege, he would probably be considered hostile.
He stopped several times as he drew nearer, taking off his hat and waving it in the air.
Nothing from the house.
He came to a closed gate and stopped, dismounting. He wasn't about to open that gate unless invited to do so. But no invite came.
The snow was just about gone from the ground, but the wind was still whistling around him.
"Hello, the house!" Smoke yelled.
He was just about to call again when the response came. "What do you want?"
A female voice. And not an old voice.
"Some food and coffee would be nice," Smoke called.
"Have this instead," the voice said, sending him a bullet that had Smoke diving for the ground.CHAPTER 2
Several more slugs cut the air above his head. Smoke noticed that none of the slugs came close to Dagger. The big horse trotted away a few yards and looked back at Smoke, his expression saying, "What have you got us into now?"
"I'm friendly!" Smoke called, crawling to his knees. "I mean you no harm!"
"You ride for the Bar V?" This time it was a man's voice.
"Hell, no! They've been chasing me all over the country for the last week."
"Because they think I'm somebody named Perkins!"
A full minute ticked by. "All right, mister." This time it was the female voice. "Get into the saddle and come on in. But you put a hand on a gun and you're dead. And close the gate behind you."
It suddenly came to Smoke. Perkins! Clint Perkins. The outlaw that some called the Robin Hood of the West. He was always helping farmers, nesters, and the down-and-outers. He would rustle cattle from big land barons, butcher the carcass and distribute the meat to the needy. He'd been known to give the money to the poor, after holding up rich folks.
But what connection did Clint Perkins have with the Box T?
Well, he might find out ... providing he didn't get shot first.
He swung into the saddle, leaned down and opened the gate, and rode on in, carefully closing the gate behind him. He walked Dagger toward the house. Smoke stopped at the hitchrail and sat his saddle. Damned if he was going to get down until invited.
"What's your name?" the voice came from inside the house, speaking from behind the open but curtained window.
"Mamma," a child's voice said excitedly. "I seen him on the cover of a book. That's Smoke Jensen!"
After a lot of apologies and much embarrassment on the part of those in the house, Smoke was invited to sit down and eat. A small boy took Dagger to the barn. Children could handle the big mean-eyed stallion, but Dagger would kill a grown man who tried to mess with him.
Smoke tried to put some family resemblance between the young woman and the old couple. He could not see any. And he didn't ask; none of his business.
Smoke put away a respectable bit of food and started working on his third cup of coffee.
"I like to see a man eat well," Alice Burden said. "Our boy used to eat like that."
Walt gave his wife a warning look that closed her mouth.
Smoke picked up on the glance but said nothing.
"Just passin' through?" Walt asked, lighting his pipe.
"Something like that," Smoke sugared his coffee. "Til I had a run-in with a loudmouth name of Jud Vale. I busted him in the mouth and put him on a barroom floor."
"I'd sure like to have seen that," Walt said with a sigh. "That man has sure caused us some problems." "Why?"
The old man shrugged his shoulders. "He wants our land. Jud Vale wants everything he sees. Including her." He cut his eyes to Doreen, a slim but very shapely woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties.
Got to be more to it than that, Smoke thought. "What has Clint Perkins got to do with all this?"
Walt looked at his coffee cup. His wife busied herself at the sink, washing dishes. Doreen met Smoke's eyes. "He's my husband. Sort of."
Odd reply, Smoke thought. "Father of the boy?"
"Clint is from this area, right?"
"Not too far from here," she replied. "It's a long story, but I'll make it short. When Clint was just a boy he saw his father and mother killed by greedy cattlemen who wanted their land and didn't like farmers. The boy took to the high country and raised himself. He hates rich people to the point of being a fanatic about it. But he has a few good points. More than a few. I married him, but it just didn't work. He refuses to stop his outlawing. I just couldn't live like that."
"So you took the boy and left?"
Smoke didn't believe her. She was lying through her teeth, but damned if he knew why.
"This is a big spread, Mr. Burden. Where are your hands?"
"Don't have none no more. Jud's men run them off; killed a couple. They're buried on that crest to the east."
Smoke had seen the graveyard. More than two crosses there. "And Jud's men cut your fence?"
"Tell me about this Clint Perkins?"
"What is there to say?" Walt said. "Nobody 'ceptin' Doreen has seen his face in fifteen years."
"You two look alike," Doreen said. "I can see where someone might think you were him."
What to do? Smoke thought. All three of these people were lying to him. But why? What were they hiding? Walt and Alice Burden were too old for Clint Perkins to be their son. So that was out. So where was the connection? There had to be one.
"How'd you get here?" he asked Doreen.
"Runnin' from Jud Vale," she answered simply. "Walt and Alice took me and Micky in and let us stay."
Why? Had they known Doreen that well? Had they been neighbors? What? Too many unanswered questions. It made Smoke uneasy. Very uneasy.
Excerpted from Law of the Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1989 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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