THE GREATEST WESTERN WRITER OF THE 21ST CENTURY
The kind of man for whom God created the gun, Smoke Jensen stands as a force of will in the brutal, lawless west…
NOTHING WILL STAND IN HIS WAY
Smoke Jensen has a good woman by his side. Now all he needs to make Sugarloaf the best cattle ranch in Colorado is John Chisum’s prime steer. But a cattle war has turned the landscape into a battleground, and a ruthless gang of rustlers is hot on Smoke’s trail. The bullet-proof mountain man is determined to get what he wants—even if he has to blast every one of the dirty desperados back to hell.
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Smoke Jensen rode his big Palouse, Horse, into Big Rock, Colorado, just as the sun peeked over the mountains to the east. As Horse cantered down dusty streets, Smoke's eyes flicked back and forth, checking alleyways and shadows for potential trouble. Though his days as one of the West's most feared gunfighters were behind him, old habits died hard, and old enemies seemed to live longer and outnumber old friends.
As Smoke passed the jail, Sheriff Monte Carson stepped through the door and tipped his hat. "Howdy, Smoke. Gettin' an early start this mornin'?"
Smoke smiled at his old friend and pointed back over his shoulder at a buckboard following him. "Got to set an example for these young punchers, Monte. Otherwise they'd sleep half the day away."
Monte grinned and glanced at the wagon. Pearlie, foreman of Smoke's Sugarloaf ranch, was riding slumped over, his hat pulled down over his eyes, snoring loud enough to be heard over the creaking of wheels and the clopping of horses' hooves.
Sitting next to Pearlie, leaning against his shoulder, was Cal Woods, Pearlie's second in command at the ranch. His hat was also down and his eyes were closed. Though he wasn't snoring, he was obviously asleep, too.
Monte chuckled. "Good thing those broncs know the way to town, Smoke, or them boys'd be in Denver by now."
Smoke nodded and reined Horse to a stop in front of the general store next to the jail. He stepped out of his saddle and tried the door, finding it still locked.
He shook his head. Guess everyone but Monte and I are sleeping in this morning, he thought. He climbed back up on Horse and called out, "Cal, Pearlie, wake your lazy butts up and I'll treat you to some breakfast over at Longmont's."
Pearlie opened one eye and peered out from under his Stetson. With a prodigious yawn, he nodded and nudged Cal awake. "C'mon boy. Food's callin' an' the boss is buyin'."
They left the buckboard in front of the store and ambled over to the Silver Dollar Saloon, following Smoke.
When they brushed through the batwings, the three men found Louis Longmont sitting at his usual table, drinking coffee and smoking a long, black cigar. The ex-gunfighter smiled and waved them over to his table. Even at this early hour, he was, as usual, dressed impeccably in a black suit and a starched white shirt with ruffles on the front, a black silk vest, and a red cravat around his neck.
Louis looked like a dandy, but he was in fact one of the fastest guns in the West. He was a lean, hawk-faced man, with strong, slender hands and long fingers, his nails carefully manicured, his hands clean. He had jet black hair and a black, pencil-thin mustache. He wore low-heeled boots. A pistol hung in tied-down leather on his right side; it was not for show alone. For Louis was snake-quick with a short gun. A feared, deadly gun hand when pushed. Just past forty years of age. He had come to the West as a young boy and made a name for himself first as a gunfighter, then as a skilled gambler. He was well educated and as smart as he was dangerous.
Smoke and Pearlie and Cal pulled up chairs across from Louis, who waved a hand at a young black waiter. "Tell Andre to scramble up some hen's eggs, burn three steaks, and make a fresh pot of coffee. These punchers look hungry."
Smoke's eyes flicked around the room in an unconscious search for danger, automatically noting three men sitting at a corner table on the far side of the room. Though it was barely dawn, two of the men had mugs of beer in front of them and the third a glass of whiskey.
The cowboy drinking whiskey sported a fancy double-rig of hand-tooled holsters containing pearl-handled Colts, and wore a black silk shirt and black pants tucked into knee-high stovepipe black boots. He had red hair and a red handlebar mustache. His hair was slicked down and glistened with pomade, and the corners of his mustache curled up, held in place with wax. His companions both wore pistols hung low and tied down on their thighs with rawhide thongs.
Smoke inclined his head toward the gunmen and said to Louis, "Trouble?"
Louis smiled and tipped cigar smoke from his nostrils. "They think they are. The one with the fancy rig calls himself the Arizona Kid." He paused to chuckle. "The big one on the left, the one with the shaved head, says his name is Otto, and the other one's name I didn't catch."
Louis paused while the waiter placed three mugs of dark, steaming coffee in front of them.
Pearlie built himself a cigarette and stuck it in the corner of his mouth, in unconscious imitation of his idol, the famous gunman Joey Wells, whom he had met and fought alongside the previous year.
"They were here drinking all last night," Louis continued, glancing in the direction of the gunnies who were staring at Smoke and his men. "Said they heard Ned Buntline was in the area and they wanted to talk to him about writing a book about them."
At the mention of Buntline's name, Cal came fully awake, his eyes wide. "Mr. Buntline is in Big Rock?" he asked.
Louis smiled, knowing Cal's addiction to the penny dreadfuls Buntline penned. "He was. He came through-here last week, said he was headed into the high lonesome to talk to some of the old mountain men before they all died off. He's planning on writing a story about how they opened the mountains up to the white man." "Wow!" Cal said. "Maybe I can meet him and tell him how much I like his books."
Louis nodded. "You'll probably get the chance. He plans to stop by Sugarloaf and talk to Smoke on his way back from the mountains." He hesitated. "That's if Smoke will talk to him at all. Smoke isn't all that long-winded, especially when it comes to talking about himself. If Mr. Ned Buntline intends to get any real information from Smoke Jensen, he'd better be real careful how he asks. Smoke has never been all that inclined to waggle his tongue when it comes to men who live in the high lonesome. There are some things that a man has to learn the hard way, not from some blown-up story in a book full of fancy language. Half of it isn't true to start with, a piece of some writer's imagination. I don't think Smoke will be all that excited about telling Buntline what he wants to know." He glanced at Smoke. "Am I right?"
Smoke seemed momentarily preoccupied with the three men in the corner, in particular the one Louis said called himself the Arizona Kid. "There's things ought not to be written up in some book," he said quietly. "A man who takes on high country all by himself learns a trick or two about how to survive. Learning it isn't easy, and I can show you more'n a handful of graves up in those mountains to prove my point."
"Like Puma's," Pearlie reminded. "That was one tough ol' hombre, only he put his life on the line an' his luck jus' plumb played out."
Smoke didn't want to be reminded of his dead friend. "Puma Buck was one of the best, like Preacher. But it wasn't Puma's luck that ran out ... he went up against long odds, and sooner or later, as any gambler'll tell you, those odds catch up to a man who takes chances." He was still watching the Arizona Kid from the corner of his eye, strangely uneasy, feeling a heaviness in the air, the smell of danger.
Louis noticed Smoke's distraction "I don't think those boys are dumb enough to make a play," he said under his breath, his gun hand close to his pistol. "But if they do, I'll take down the gent who shaves his head. You can have the owlhoot with the double rig. If I'm any judge, he fancies himself as a quick draw, so I'll give you the pleasure of proving him wrong."
Smoke took a sip of coffee, using his left hand to handle his cup. "The one who calls himself the Arizona Kid will be the one to start trouble."
Louis chuckled mirthlessly. "Wonder just where in Arizona Territory he'd like to have his body shipped to? I don't suppose we'll have time to ask."
"I feel it coming," Smoke whispered, "just like a mountain man can feel a chinook wind before it starts to blow."
"I sure as hell hope you're wrong," Pearlie said, "on account I'm sure as hell hungry fer them eggs ..."
Cal added his voice to Pearlie's concerns. "Y'all sure are makin' me nervous, all this talk about a shootin'. Maybe I ain't got so much appetite after all."
Pearlie looked at the boy. "Relax, son. If any two men can handle them three, it's Smoke an' Mr. Longmont. Truth is, either one could most likely handle all three, no matter how tough they claim to be."
Smoke wasn't really listening, pretending to watch a sunrise out the front windows when in fact he was keeping an eye on the three men at the corner table.
"It's my belly that ain't relaxed," Cal muttered.
Right at that moment the Arizona Kid signaled the bartender for another round of beers.
Louis seemed amused over Cal's uneasiness. "My money says when those eggs and steaks get here, you'll lick your plate clean as a whistle."
"Maybe," Cal replied, taking his own quick glance at the men in the corner. "Those boys look like a bad case of indigestion to me."
Smoke still sensed the nearness of danger, a lifelong habit, learning to trust his instincts. There was something about the three gunmen, not merely the way they wore their guns tied down, but something more, an attitude of confidence, even arrogance, on their faces. He drank more coffee, hoping he was wrong about the prospects of trouble.
The bartender brought three beers to the table. Smoke heard one of the men ask who the newcomers were.
"That big feller's none other than Smoke Jensen," the barman replied. "He makes his home right close to Big Rock."
"He came struttin' in here like he thinks he's tough, them big shoulders thrown back."
The barkeep lowered his voice even more. "Make no mistake about it, stranger. He is tough. Plenty of men have tried him to see if he's as mean as his reputation. Some got away with a hole or two in their hides. Some went below ground to feed the worms."
The Arizona Kid was watching Smoke closely now. "You say his name is Smoke Jensen? Never heard of him. Maybe all he's got is that mean reputation."
The bartender glanced over his shoulder in Smoke's direction and quickly looked away. "I ain't no doctor, mister, but if I was you an' wanted to stay healthy, I wouldn't test Mr. Jensen to see if I'm tellin' you the truth." He turned on his heel and hurried away. The Arizona Kid and the gunman named Otto continued to stare at Smoke.
Like predicting winter weather in the high lonesome, Smoke knew what was coming. It was just a matter of time. The Kid wanted to draw attention to himself, perhaps to add to his self-importance if he got the chance to talk to Ned Buntline, to put another notch on his guns.
To keep young Cal and Pearlie out of the line of fire, he said, "Why don't you two go out and see to the buggy team and my Palouse. Won't take but a minute and you'll be done before the food gets here."
Pearlie nodded, like he understood. Cal needed no urging to push back his chair for a walk outside. As the pair was leaving, Smoke turned at the waist to look directly at the Arizona Kid and his partners, deciding there was no sense in wasting time when a confrontation was as sure as the snow in high country now. "You boys got a bad case of the goggle eyes," he said evenly. "Maybe I'm too particular about it, but it sticks in my craw like sand when some gent stares at me. Especially you, the carrot-topped hombre with the mustache, you just gotta learn some manners or somebody's liable to teach you some."
The Kid put down his beer mug and rose slowly to his feet, his back to the wall. "Is that so?" he asked, sneering, both hands near the butts of his guns. "Tell you the truth, mister, I don't see nobody in this room who's man enough to git that job done."
Smoke came to a crouch, then rose to his full height, lips drawn into a hard line. "Then look a little closer," he snarled, as every muscle in his body tensed. "I think it's time you boys cleared out of here. We'll take our little disagreement outside. A friend of mine owns this establishment and I'd hate like hell to be responsible for spilling blood all over his nice clean floor, or putting any bullet holes in his walls. Meet me out in the street and we'll settle this."
"Like hell!" the Kid bellowed, hands dipping for his pistols as Smoke had anticipated all along.
In the same instant, Otto and the other cowboy were clawing for their guns.
Lightning quick, employing reflexes that had kept him alive in much tougher situations, Smoke came up with both hands filled with iron, Colt .44s, working his thumbs and trigger fingers in well-practiced movements, almost second nature to a man who kept himself alive by wits and weapons.
The Silver Dollar Saloon exploded in a thundering series of deafening blasts, becoming a symphony of noise when Louis Longmont added his gunshots to the concussions swelling inside the establishment's walls.
The Arizona Kid was driven back against wallpapered planks behind him, his mouth grotesquely distorted when balls of speeding lead shattered his front teeth. His hat went spinning into the air like a child's top as the back of his skull ruptured in flying masses of tissue, red hair, bone fragments, and brains.
At the same time Otto swirled, balancing on one booted foot while a spurt of blood erupted from the base of his neck above his shirt collar. Another slug entered his right eye, closing it upon impact amid a shower of crimson squirting from a hole below his right ear. Otto appeared to be dancing to an unheard melody for a moment, trying to remain upright on one foot, hopping up and down, dropping his gun to the floor to reach for his throat and eye socket.
The third gunman went backward through a shattering windowpane before his gun ever cleared leather, a .44 caliber bullet splintering his breastbone, puckering the front of his shirt as it sped through his body in the exact spot where Smoke placed it, with as much care as time afforded him.
Amid the roaring gunblasts, someone screamed outside the saloon, but it was the Arizona Kid who held Smoke's attention now as the gunman slid down the Silver Dollar's expensively decorated wall, leaving a red smear in his wake as he went to the floor in a heap, what was left of his mouth agape, dribbling blood down the front of his silk shirt, remnants of teeth still clinging to bleeding gums. A plug of his curly red hair was plastered to the wall above him, sticking there for a curiously long time before it dropped soundlessly to the floor beside him.
Otto teetered on one foot, making strangling sounds, blood pumping from his wounds as he somehow managed to remain standing, hopping for no apparent reason, since he had no leg wounds, merely unable to put his left foot down.
Smoke and Louis stopped firing, watching Otto perform his odd dance steps while gunsmoke rose slowly toward the ceiling.
"He'll fall down in a minute," Louis said, as though he was discussing the weather, or the felling of a tree. "Or should I put another slug in him and be done with it?"
"Hard to say," Smoke replied dryly, holstering his pistols, his eyes on Otto. "He does a right nice dance step. Too bad we ain't got a fiddler."
The thumping of Otto's boot and his choking sounds were the only noises inside the Silver Dollar for several seconds more as Smoke and Louis watched the dying man's struggle. Suddenly, Otto's knee gave way and he collapsed on the floorboards beside a brass spittoon with a soft gurgling coming from the hole in his neck. A dark stain began to spread across the crotch of his pants when his bladder emptied, a sure sign of the nearness of death.
Smoke sauntered over to the broken window, gazing out at the third gunman's limp body. "This one's dead," he told Louis in a quiet voice. "I reckon I owe you for a piece of glass."
"Nonsense," Louis replied. "Hardly a month passes that I don't buy a window or two, after some of my customers get a bit too rowdy. You don't owe me a thing."
Smoke turned to his old friend and grinned. "Yes I do, and you know it. The big guy, Otto, was a little faster than I had him sized up to be. I might have been picking lead out of my own hide if you hadn't been here to back me."
"Nobody is keeping score," Louis said. "We've been backing each other so long I lost count of who owes who a long time ago. I'm not keeping a tally book, but I'll wager it's heavily in your favor. You've stopped a lot of lead from flying in my direction over the years. Now sit down. I'll send someone for the undertaker and then I'll send out those steaks and eggs, if the cook didn't let 'em burn while all that shooting was going on."
Excerpted from "Battle of the Mountain Man"
Copyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp..
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Enjoyed the story line and the action. A good read.