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SHOOT OUT OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2010 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSmoke Jensen was in Longmont's saloon playing cards with a few of his friends. Louis Longmont wasn't playing, but he was nearby, leaning up against the wall, adding his own comments to the conversation that flowed around the card table.
Smoke was only partially participating in the conversation, and was only partially participating in the card game, as was demonstrated when he failed to respond to the dealer's request.
"Smoke?" Garrett said. Garrett, a stagecoach driver, was one of the other players.
"How many cards?"
"What do you mean you pass? You've already matched the bet."
"Oh, uh, I'll play these."
"Smoke what's got into you?" Louis asked. "You seem to be somewhere else."
"I fold," Smoke said.
Laying his cards facedown on the table, Smoke got up. Not until he stood could anyone get a good enough look at him to be able to gauge the whole of the man. Six feet two inches tall, he had broad shoulders and upper arms so large that even the shirt he wore couldn't hide the bulge of his biceps. His hair, the color of wheat, was kept trimmed, and he was clean shaven. His hips were narrow, though accented by the gun belt and holster from which protruded a Colt .44, its wooden handle smooth and unmarked.
Smoke walked to the bar, moving to the opposite end from a young man who had come in a few minutes earlier. Smoke had noticed him the moment the young man came in. He was wearing his pistol low on his right side, with the handle kicked out. He was sweating profusely, though it wasn't that hot. He had ordered one beer as soon as he came in, but hadn't taken more than one sip the whole time he was there.
Smoke had seen men like this before, young gunsels who thought the fastest way to fame was to be known as the man who had killed Smoke Jensen. He knew that as soon as the young man got up his nerve, he would make his move. It was that, the upcoming confrontation with this man, that had taken Smoke's mind away from the conversation and the game.
Louis came over to the bar.
"Are you all right, Smoke? You're acting rather peculiar."
"Better not stand too close to me, Louis," Smoke said under his breath.
Smoke nodded toward the young man at the opposite end of the bar. The young man was leaning over the bar, staring into his beer with his hands on either side of the glass.
Louis looked toward the man, then saw what Smoke had seen. It appeared that the nervous young man was trying to gather his nerve.
"Draw me a beer, will you?" Smoke asked.
Louis nodded, walked over to draw a mug of beer, then set it before Smoke. Without glancing again at the young man at the far end of the bar, Louis stepped away from Smoke, giving him all the room he might need.
Smoke did not overtly stare at the young gunman, but even though it appeared that he was uninterested in his surroundings, he was maintaining a close watch. Because of that, he was ready when the young man finally made his move.
"Draw, Jensen!" the young man shouted, turning away from the bar as he made a grab for his pistol.
"I already have," Smoke replied calmly.
The young man had his pistol only half withdrawn when he realized that he was staring down the barrel of a gun, the pistol already in Smoke's hand.
"What the-how did you do that?" the young man asked, taking his hand off his pistol, then raising both of his hands. "Don't shoot, don't shoot!" he begged.
By now, all conversation throughout the saloon had stilled, the card game had stopped, and everyone was paying attention to the drama that was playing out before them.
"Pull your gun out, very slowly, using only your thumb and forefinger," Smoke ordered.
"What are you goin' to do, mister?" the young man asked. "Are you goin' to kill me?"
"Why not? You were going to kill me, weren't you?"
"Yeah, I reckon I was," the young man answered.
"Drop your pistol in there," Smoke said, pointing to a nearby spittoon.
"In the spittoon? No, I won't do that," the young man replied.
"Oh, I think you will," Smoke said. He thumbed back the hammer, and the deadly double click of the sear engaging the cylinder sounded exceptionally loud in the now-quiet saloon.
"All right, all right," the young man said. Stepping over to the spittoon, he made a face, then dropped the pistol into it. It caused the brown liquid to splash out onto the floor.
Smoke holstered his pistol.
"Louis," he called.
"Give the young man a new beer. On me."
"Ma-make it whiskey," the young man said.
Louis poured a shot and gave it to the would-be gunman. With a shaking hand, he lifted the glass to his lips, then tossed it down.
"What's your name?" Smoke asked.
"The name's Clark," the young man answered. "Emmett Clark."
"Why did you want to kill me, Emmett Clark?"
"It's a matter of honor," Clark answered.
"Honor? You think it is honorable to kill someone?"
"If you call them out and do it face-to-face," Clark said. "And if you're payin' someone back for somethin' they done to you."
"Boy, I've never done anything to you," Smoke said. "I've never even heard of you."
"Not to me, you ain't. But you done it to my kin. You kilt my pa. I was only fourteen when you kilt him, but I taught myself how to shoot so's I could get things all square."
"What was your pa's name?"
"Clark, same as mine. Rob Clark. He was a banker in Etna, and you shot and kilt him when you was holdin' up the bank. You do remember that, don't you?"
"Yes, I remember that bank robbery. But I didn't have anything to do with it, or with shooting your father."
"Don't tell me that, mister. You was found guilty of killin' him. You was found guilty and sentenced to hang. I wanted to watch you hang, but my ma wouldn't have nothin' to do with that. She went back to live with my grandparents in Kansas City, and I didn't have no choice but to go back with her. It was a long time afore I found out that you didn't actually hang. You escaped."
"Yes. I escaped, and I proved my innocence," Smoke said.
"Ha! Proved your innocence? You expect me to believe that?"
"You should believe it, son, because it's true," Sheriff Carson interjected. Stepping into the saloon a moment earlier, Monte Carson had stood just inside the door as a silent witness to the interplay between Smoke and Clark. "I got the wire that said Smoke had been completely cleared. He was set up by the folks who actually did rob the bank and kill your pa. I've still got the wire down in my office if you need to be convinced."
"I'm sorry about your father, boy," Smoke said. "But as the sheriff said, I didn't have a thing to do with it. It was someone else who killed him."
Clark was quiet for a long moment. "Where are they?" he asked. "The ones that killed my pa, I mean. Where are they now?"
"They're dead," Smoke said.
"How do you know they are dead?"
"Because I killed them."
"Damn," Clark said. He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment. Then he grabbed a towel from one of the bar hooks, got down on his knees, and fished out his pistol. Everyone watched him warily as he began drying it and his hands off. Then, grasping his revolver by the barrel, he held it out toward Sheriff Carson.
"I reckon you'll be wantin' to put me in jail now," he said.
Carson looked beyond the boy toward Smoke. Almost imperceptibly, Smoke shook his head.
"Why would I be wanting to put you in jail?" Carson asked.
"I don't know. Attempted murder, I guess."
"From what I can put together, there wasn't that much attempting to it, was there?" Sheriff Carson asked. "I'll bet you didn't even get your pistol out of the holster."
Inexplicably, Clark laughed, then shook his head. "No, sir, Sheriff, I reckon you've got me there," he said. "Mr. Jensen sort of put a stop to it before it ever got started."
"What do you think, Smoke? Should I put him in jail?" Carson asked.
"Clark, you said you were a man of honor," Smoke said to the young man. "Is that true?"
Clark nodded pointedly. "I ain't got no family now. My ma died last year. Never had no brothers. I ain't got hardly no money either. I reckon the only thing I got that is worth anything is my honor, so, yes, sir, I would say I am a man of honor."
"Then I'm going to hold you to that honor, Clark," Smoke said. "I'm going to let you ride on out of here, trusting that you aren't going to be lying in wait somewhere, aiming to shoot me."
"You got my word on that, Mr. Jensen. I'm satisfied that you didn't have anything to do with killing my pa. Makes sense to me anyway, now that I think about it. If you were guilty, there'd be paper out on you, and, though I've looked, I haven't seen any."
"Let him go, Sheriff," Smoke said.
"Go on, boy," Sheriff Carson said. "But I'd appreciate it if you would leave town."
"Yes, sir," Clark said. "I really have no reason for staying now anyway." He made a motion toward returning his pistol to his holster, then looked at the sheriff as if asking for permission.
Sheriff Carson nodded that it would be all right.
"Clark, have you ever used that gun?" Smoke asked.
"Just to shoot at varmints and such," Clark replied. "I've never used it against a man."
"Do you plan to?"
"For the last few years, all I've thought about was finding you and killing you. And I didn't even figure that would be wrong, seeing as how you had been sentenced to hang but escaped. I don't have any plans to use it against a man, but I figure I could if it ever come to that."
"Are you good with it?"
"Yes, sir," Clark answered. "I'm damn good with it."
"There will always be someone better," Smoke said. "Remember that."
Clark nodded. "Yes, sir, well, I reckon you just proved that to me, didn't you?"
Smoke and the others in the saloon watched as the young man walked out through the batwing doors. A moment later, they heard the sound of hoofbeats as he rode away. Louis Longmont was standing at the window watching, and he called back to the sheriff.
"He's gone," Louis said.
Not until then was the saloon reanimated as everyone began to talk at once.
"I must say, Smoke, you seemed awfully easy on him," Sheriff Carson said.
"I reckon I was," Smoke said. "But then I look at him, and I see myself when I was on the blood trail after the ones who killed folks that were close to me."
"You comin' back to the game, Smoke?" Doc Colton called from the poker table.
Smoke shook his head. "No, I expect I'd better get on back out to the ranch. I have been in town long enough."
"What he's saying is that he doesn't want Miss Sally to come into town, grab him by the ear, and lead him home," David Tobin said, and the others laughed.
"Yeah, well, if you ever had your ear grabbed by Sally, you would understand why," Smoke said with a good-natured smile, and again the others laughed.
Smoke went outside to the hitching rail, untied his horse, then swung into the saddle. He looked in the direction young Clark had taken and saw him, now a long way out of town, growing smaller as the distance between them opened.
His horse, Seven, whickered as Smoke approached him. Smoke squeezed his ear.
"You about ready to go back home, are you, boy?" Smoke said as he untied the reins from the hitching rail. Seven dipped his head a couple of times, and Smoke laughed.
"I should have never built that new stall for you. You like it too much. You're going to get so lazy you'll never want to leave it."
Smoke swung into the saddle, then started out of town, the hollow clump of Seven's hooves echoing back from the buildings that fronted the street. It was five miles to Sugarloaf, and because Seven was showing an anxiousness to run, Smoke decided to give him his head.
Chapter TwoAs Smoke Jensen was leaving Big Rock, back at his ranch, Sugarloaf, his wife, Sally, was sitting on a flat rock, high on an escarpment that guarded the north end of the ranch, protecting it from the icy blasts of winter. Sally had discovered this point of vigil, which she called Eagle Watch, shortly after she and Smoke were married and moved here into the "High Country" to start their lives together.
Reached by a circuitous and often hidden trail, Eagle Watch was covered with a mixture of pine and deciduous trees that offered green all year, while also providing a painter's palette of color in the spring when the crab apple and plum trees bloomed, and again in the fall when the aspen and maple leaves changed. In addition, the meadow itself was blanketed with wildflowers of every hue and description.
Sally had come up here in her first week at the ranch to write a letter to her father back in Vermont, to try and give him an idea of what she felt about her new home.
Smoke and I make our debut here in this wonderful place where the snowy mountains will look down upon us in the hottest summer day as well as in the winter's cold, here where in the not too distant past the wild beasts and wilder Indians held undisturbed possession-where now surges the advancing wave of enterprise and civilization, and where soon, we proudly hope, will be erected a great and powerful state, another empire in the sisterhood of empires.
It was very much like Sally to express her thoughts in such a poetic fashion. She was a young woman of education and passion, sensitive to the rugged beauty of the home she shared with her husband, and filled with unbridled enthusiasm for their future. The letter had been written some years earlier, and since that time, Colorado had become a state. But though dated, the letter still remained appropriate to the way Sally felt about this place.
From here, Sally could see the house Smoke had built for them, a large two-story edifice, white, with a porch that ran all the way across the front. It had turrets at each of the front corners, the windows of which now shined gold in the reflected sunlight. Also in the compound were several other structures, including the bunkhouse, cook's shack, barn, granary, and other outbuildings. She could also see many of the thousands of acres that made up Sugarloaf Ranch.
Abandoning her contemplation of the ranch, she turned her attention to the road that ran from Sugarloaf into Big Rock. There, she saw a plume of dust, then, just ahead of the plume, a galloping Appaloosa. She smiled at the sight-Smoke was coming home at a gallop.
Mounting her own horse, Sally started back down the trail toward the ranch compound. Though the trail down was too steep to allow a gallop, her horse was sure-footed and nimble enough to traverse the distance rather quickly, thus allowing her to reach the house before Smoke. Dismounting, she climbed up onto the wide porch so she could watch his arrival.
The road, which on the state and county maps was called Jensen Pike, ran parallel with a long fence, before it turned in through a gate that had the name of the ranch fashioned from wrought-iron letters in the arch above. But, as Sally knew he would, Smoke did not come through the gate. Instead, he left the road, then urging Seven into a mighty jump, sailed over the fence almost as if on wings. After successfully negotiating the fence, he galloped into the compound before pulling the horse to a stop and leaping down from the saddle.
"Seven, you are the greatest horse in the world!" Smoke shouted, patting the hard-breathing animal on its forehead.
Sally laughed. "You said that to the other three horses you named Seven, and the two you named Drifter."
"They were the greatest horses in the world too," Smoke said.
"Don't be silly. There can only be one greatest," Sally reminded him.
Smoke held up his finger and waved it back and forth. "No, that's the schoolteacher in you talking," he said. "If you love horses, you know there can be as many greatest horses as you want."
Again, Sally laughed. "All right," she said. "I guess I can't argue with you on that. How was your trip to town? Did anything interesting happen?"
Sally arched her eyebrows. "Not really? That means something actually."
"Tell me, woman, when I think something, do words just appear on my forehead for you to read my thoughts?" Smoke teased.
Excerpted from SHOOT OUT OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2010 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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