Three days before Christmas, Matt Jensen is traveling the Denver and Pacific railway when an avalanche slams down onto the train, trapping it in desolate Trout Creek Pass. But it wasn’t an act of nature that caused the accident; it was a gang of outlaws attempting to rescue their leader, who is being taken to Red Cliff to be hanged.
As Smoke Jensen and Duff MacCallister frantically try to make their way to the scene, Matt struggles to save the survivors, among them a beautiful young woman with a dark past, a merchant seaman turned rancher, and a senator with his very ill young daughter. Starving under a bitter, driving snow in the brutal, unforgiving Rocky Mountains, and surrounded by armed and desperate outlaws, Matt still dreams of making it home for Christmas. But unless fate lends a hand, nobody will.
“An exciting visit to the old west of gunfights and cattle drives.” —RT Book Reviews
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About the Author
Being the all-around assistant, typist, researcher, and fact checker to one of the most popular western authors of all time, J.A. Johnstone learned from the master, Uncle William W. Johnstone.
He began tutoring J.A. at an early age. After-school hours were often spent retyping manuscripts or researching his massive American Western History library as well as the more modern wars and conflicts. J.A. worked hard—and learned.
“Every day with Bill was an adventure story in itself. Bill taught me all he could about the art of storytelling. ‘Keep the historical facts accurate,’ he would say. ‘Remember the readers, and as your grandfather once told me, I am telling you now: be the best J.A. Johnstone you can be.’”
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New Orleans, Louisiana — July 9, 1889
The Delta Mist was moored to the bank, running parallel with Tchoupitoulas Street. Matt Jensen showed his ticket to the purser, then boarded the vessel, a packet boat that made the run between St. Louis and New Orleans and back again. Instead of going directly to his stateroom, he stopped at the rail of the texas deck, looking back toward the city of New Orleans, at the flower-bedecked ironwork trellises and balconies, and the belles of New Orleans strolling the streets in butterfly-bright dresses under colorful parasols.
Of all the cities he had visited, New Orleans was one of the most unique. Although it was an American city, it retained much of its French heritage, and although it was a Southern city, it had its own unique culture, making it stand apart from other cities of the South. Aromas of food, flowers, and a "perfume" distinctive only to New Orleans wafted toward the boat. Music, interspersed with laughter — loud guffaws of men and high trills of women — came from a riverfront bar on Tchoupitoulas Street.
The captain of the boat stood on the lower deck, frequently pulling out his pocket watch to check the time. It was obvious he was waiting for someone, and whoever it was, was late, contributing to an increasing agitation.
Matt watched a cab approach the river, the horse in a rapid trot, then pull to a stop at the river's edge. A woman got out, handed a bill to the driver, and hurried across the gangplank and on to the boat.
"Uncle, I'm so sorry. I was shopping and lost track of the time," the woman apologized.
"Jenny, I can't hold up the entire boat because my niece can't keep track of the time," the captain said. From his spot on the texas deck, Matt was able to examine the woman rather closely. She was an exceptionally pretty woman with red hair, a peaches-and-cream complexion, blue eyes, and prominent cheekbones. If one had asked her about her lips, she might suggest they were a bit too full.
"Mr. Peabody!" the captain called.
"Aye, sir," answered one of the other officers.
"Away all lines. Pull in the gangplank."
Matt maintained his position at the rail on the texas deck, watching as the boat crew performed the ordered tasks. Captain Lee had reached the wheelhouse, and once the boat was free of its restraints, a signal was sent to the engine room. Smoke belched from the twin, fluted chimneys and the stern wheel began to turn, pushing the boat away from the bank and into the middle of the Mississippi River. The boat turned upstream, and the great red and yellow paddle wheel began spinning rapidly, leaving behind it a long, frothing wake.
Jenny Lee worked for her uncle as a hostess in the Grand Salon of the Delta Mist. It was her duty to see to the comfort and needs of the passengers who came into the Grand Salon. She also arranged friendly games of whist, checkers, and even poker for the passengers who wanted to participate.
Over the past two days, the boat had been averaging twelve miles per hour and was approaching Memphis, 704 miles by river from New Orleans. She was passing pleasantries with some of the passengers when a loud, angry voice got the attention of everyone in the salon.
"No man is that lucky! You have to be cheating!"
The speaker was standing at one of the tables, and the object of his anger and the subject of his charge was Matt Jensen.
Unlike the angry man, Matt was composed as he sat across the table.
Not so the other two players who, at the outburst, had stood up and backed away from the table so quickly they knocked over their chairs.
For a long moment there was absolute silence in the Grand Salon, with nothing to be heard but the sound of the engine, the slap of the stern paddle, and the whisper of water rushing by the keel.
"Mister, nobody cheats me and gets away with it," the man addressed his hostility toward Matt.
"You're out of line, Holman." Dr. Gunter was one of the other players at the table. "Nobody has been cheating at this table."
"The hell there ain't nobody been cheatin'! I ain't won a hand in the last hour. And he's won the most of 'em." Holman reached for the money piled up in the middle of the table. "I'm just goin' to take this pot to make up for it."
"That's not your pot." Jay Miller, a lawyer from St. Louis, was the fourth player at the table.
"Yeah? Well, we'll just see whose pot it is," Holman said contemptuously as he started to put the money in his hat.
"Leave the money on the table, Holman." Those were the first words Matt had spoken since being challenged.
"The hell I will. This money is mine, and I'm takin' it with me."
Jenny hurried over to the table. "Mr. Holman, please. You are creating a disturbance, and your behavior is making the passengers uneasy."
"Yeah? Well, to hell with the passengers. What kind of boat is this, anyway, that you allow cheaters in the games?"
"I wasn't cheating," Matt pointed out dryly.
"Mr. Jensen is tellin' the truth, Miss Lee." Dr. Gunter pointed toward Matt. "He wasn't cheatin'."
"What do you say, Mr. Miller?" Jenny asked the third man.
"I've played a lot of cards in my day, and I think I can tell when someone is cheating. I don't believe he was."
Jenny looked back at the angry gambler. "These gentlemen don't agree with you."
"Of course they don't. They are probably in on it. I wouldn't be surprised if they all get together later on and divide up the money. Mymoney." Once again, he leaned over the pile of money on the table. "Like I said, I'll be taking this pot."
"Miss Lee, I've played cards with Mr. Jensen," declared a passenger who wasn't currently in the game. "I've never known him to be anything but honest."
"Same here," another put in. "I wasn't in this game, but I've played a few hands with him since we left New Orleans, and I found him to be an honest man. If these two gentlemen who were in the game say he wasn't cheating, then I would be inclined to believe them."
"Mr. Holman, that makes four people who say Mr. Jensen wasn't cheating. When you play cards for money, you are accepting the possibility of losing. The only thing protecting the game is the honesty, integrity, and honor of the players."
"You!" Holman pointed at Jenny. "You are in on it too, aren't you? You are all in it together."
"Look. We were in the same game as you. You think we would take up for him if he was cheating? Hell, we lost money, too," Miller said.
"Yeah, well, neither one of you lost as much money as I did."
"That's because neither of them is as bad at cards as you are," Matt gracelessly pointed out.
"What do you mean, I'm a bad player? Why, I'm as good at cards as any man."
"No, you aren't," Matt insisted. "You can't run a bluff and you raise bets in games of stud when the cards you have showing prove you are beaten. You should find some other game of chance and give up poker."
Jenny turned to Matt. "Mr. Jensen, I believe the pot is yours." She reached for the money to slide it across the table toward him, but Holman pushed her away from the table so hard that she fell.
He pointed down at her. "Keep your hands off my money. Like I said, I'm takin' this pot, and there's nobody here who can stop me."
Matt and another passenger helped her up. "Thank you for interceding, Miss Lee, but I think you had better let me handle this now."
"Ha!" the angry gambler cried. "You are going to handle this? What do you plan to do?"
"Oh, I'll do whatever it takes." Matt's calm, almost expressionless reply surprised the angry man.
The shock showed in his face, but was quickly replaced by an evil smile. He stepped away from the table and flipped his jacket back, showing an ivory-handled pistol in a tooled-leather holster.
"Mister, maybe it's time that I tell you who I am. My name ain't John Holman like I been sayin'. My actual name is Quince Justin Holmes, only some folks call me Quick Justice Holmes because I tend to make my own justice, if you know what I mean."
"Quick Justice Holmes," A passenger repeated in awe.
"That's Quick Justice?"
"This is gettin' downright dangerous," another said. "What do you say now?" Holmes asked.
"I say the same thing I've been saying. You aren't getting that pot," Matt said resolutely.
"It won't matter none to you whether I get the pot or not, 'cause you ain't goin' to be around to see it," Holmes said, his voice menacing.
"Does this mean you are inviting me to the dance?" Matt asked, still calm.
Holmes laughed. "Yeah, you might say that. I'll even let you make the first move."
Despite his offer, his hand was already dipping for his pistol, even as he was speaking. He smiled as he realized his draw had caught Matt by surprise. But the smile left his face when he saw Matt's draw.
To the witnesses, it appeared Matt and Holmes fired at the same time. But in actuality, Matt fired just a split second sooner and the impact of his bullet took Holmes off his aim. Holmes's bullet whizzed by Matt's ear and punched through the glass of one of the windows of the Grand Salon.
"I'll be damned! I've been kilt!" Holmes cried as he staggered back from the blow of the bullet.
"You could have prevented it at any time," Matt uttered.
Holmes dropped his gun and clamped his hand over the wound in his chest. Blood spilled through his fingers, and he opened his hand to look at it before he collapsed.
Matt returned his pistol to his holster. Looking over toward Jenny, he saw a horrified expression on her face. "I'm sorry about this, Miss Lee."
"No," she replied in a small voice. "You ... had no choice."
The boat put in at Memphis, and a coroner's inquest was held. The hearing lasted less than an hour. Enough witnesses testified that Quince Justin Holmes instigated the shooting and a decision was quickly reached.
Quince Justin Holmes died as a result of a .44 ball, which was energized to terrible effect by a pistol held by Matthew Jensen. This hearing concludes that Mr. Jensen was put in danger of his life when Holmes drew and fired at him. It is the finding of this hearing that this was a case of justifiable homicide and no charges are to be filed against Mr. Jensen.
Matt was welcomed back aboard the Delta Mist by those who had witnessed the shooting, as well as those who had only heard about it. He apologized to the boat captain for having been involved in the incident.
"Nonsense," Captain Lee replied. "Why, you've made the Delta Mist famous. People will want to take the boat where the infamous Quick Justice Holmes was killed. To say nothing of the fact that he was killed by Matt Jensen. You are truly one of America's best known shootists, as well known for your honesty and goodness of heart as you are for your prowess with a pistol."
"Hear, hear!" someone called, and the others cheered and applauded.
For the next 575 miles, the distance by river from Memphis to St. Louis, passengers vied for the opportunity to visit with Matt, or better, to play poker with him. His luck wasn't always as good as it had been during the trip from New Orleans to Memphis. By the time the boat docked up against the riverbank in the Gateway City, he had no more money with him than he had when he left New Orleans.
Jenny Lee stood by the gangplank, telling the passengers good-bye as they left the boat and thanking them for choosing the Delta Mist.
"Mr. Jensen, I do hope you travel with us again. You managed to make this trip" — she paused mid-sentence and smiled broadly — "most interesting."
"Perhaps a little too interesting," Matt suggested as he took the hand she had offered him.
At sea — September 23, 1890
The ship was the American Eagle, a four-masted clipper in the Pacific trade. As much canvas as could be spread gleamed a brilliant white in the sunshine, and the ship was lifting, falling, and gently moving from side to side as it plowed over the long, rolling swells of the Pacific. The propelling wind, spilling from the sails, emitted a soft, whispering sigh as the boat heeled.
The helmsman stood at the wheel, his legs spread slightly as he held the ship on its course. Working sailors moved about the deck, tightening a line here, loosening one there, providing the exact tension on the rigging and angle on the sheets to maintain maximum speed. Some sailors were holystoning the deck, while others were manning the bilge pumps.
Twenty-four-year-old Luke Shardeen stood on the leeward side on the quarterdeck, his big hands resting lightly on the railing. From the age of seventeen he had been at sea, rising from an able-bodied seaman to first officer. His dark hair blew in the wind as his brown eyes examined the barometer for the third time in the last thirty minutes. There was no doubt it was falling, and that could only presage bad weather. Shrugging his broad shoulders, he left the quarterdeck and tapped on the door of the captain's cabin.
"Yes?" the captain called.
"Captain, permission to enter?"
"Come in, Mr. Shardeen."
Luke stepped into the cabin, which was as large as all the other officers' quarters combined. Captain Cutter was bent over the chart table with a compass and a protractor.
"Captain, the barometer has fallen rather significantly in the last half hour. I've no doubt but that a storm is coming."
"Do you have any idea how fast we are going, Mr.
"It would only be a guess."
"We are doing nineteen knots, Mr. Shardeen. Nineteen knots," Captain Cutter said. "It's my belief that if we can maintain this pace, we'll outrun the storm."
"We won't be able to maintain this pace, Captain, if we rig the storm sails."
"I have no intention of rigging the storm sails. Certainly not until it is an absolute necessity."
"Very good, Captain." Luke withdrew from the captain's cabin and returned to the quarterdeck.
"Mr. Shardeen," the bosun called. "Will we be taking in the sail, sir?"
Luke shook his head. "Not yet."
He looked out over the water. The sea was no longer blue, but dirty gray and swirling with whitecaps. It was the kind of sea referred to by sailors as "green water" and so rough the ship dropped into a trough and took green water over the entire deck as it started back up.
Shortly, the storm was on them, with wind and rain so heavy it was impossible to distinguish the rain from the spindrift.
"Captain, we have to strike sail!" Luke shouted above the noise of the gale.
"Aye, do so," Captain Cutter agreed.
Luke sent men aloft to strike sail, praying that no one would be tossed off by the bucking ship.
The masts were stripped of all canvas without losing anyone, but the storm continued to build. By midmorning, it was a full-blown typhoon. Fifteen-foot waves crashed against the side of the 210-foot-long ship. The American Eagle was in imminent danger of foundering.
"Captain, we have to head her into the wind!" Luke Shardeen shouted.
"No. Even without sail we're still making headway," Captain Cutter shouted back.
"If we don't do it, we'll likely lose the ship!"
"I'm the captain of this vessel, Mr. Shardeen. And as long as I am captain, we'll sail the course I've set for her."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The huge waves continued to crash against the side of the ship and the rolling steepened, going over as far as forty-five degrees to starboard. It hung for so long the sailors had sure and certain fear it would continue to roll until it capsized.
Below deck in the mess, cabinet doors swung open and plates, cups, and bowls fell to the floor, crashing against the starboard.
"Everyone to port side!" Luke shouted through a megaphone and, though the sailors found it difficult to climb up the slanted deck, their combined weight helped bring the ship back from the brink of disaster.
When the ship rolled back, the dishes tumbled to port, breaking into smaller and smaller shards until there was nothing left but a jumbled collection of bits and pieces of what had once been the ship's crockery.
Above deck the yardarms were free of sail except for the spanker sail, which had been left rigged, and was now no more than tattered strips of canvas, flapping ineffectively in the ninety-mile-per-hour winds.
Captain Cutter was standing on the quarterdeck when a huge wave burst over the side of the ship. He and three sailors were swept off the deck, into the sea.
"Cap'n overboard!" someone shouted, and Luke ordered the helmsman to turn into the wind. That kept the ship in place and stopped the terrible rolling, but it began to pitch up, then down, by forty-five degrees. Luke put the men to the rails to search for those who had been washed overboard. They found and recovered two of the sailors, but there was no sign of the third sailor or the captain.
Excerpted from "A Rocky Mountain Christmas"
Copyright © 2012 William W. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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