There's Nothing A Man Won't Do To Clear His Name
They called him fastest gun alive, but Smoke Jensen is determined to stay on the right side of the law. That is, until he's jumped by six low-life robbers who steal his shirtand his identity. Smoke's tried for robbery and murder, and sentenced to hang in morning. Someone's out to frame the Mountain Man . . . someone who's made a big mistake.
JusticeMountain Man Style
Barely managing to escape on the morning of his hanging, Smoke's going after the desperados who've set him up. The gang thinks they have nothing to fear; they've already divided up the loot and gone their separate ways. But Smoke's going to hunt them down one by one. Because nobody frames the Mountain Man. Nobody who plans on staying alive, that is . . .
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Betrayal of the Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.Copyright © 2006 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSmoke Jensen saw the calf struggling through a snowdrift. The little creature had separated from its mother and the rest of the herd, and was bawling now in fear and confusion. He also saw the wolves, two of them, about twenty-five yards behind the calf. They were inching up slowly, quietly, hunkered down on their bellies to reduce their presence.
Smoke snaked his Winchester from the saddle sheath, then jacked a round into the chamber. He hooked his leg across the saddle horn, rested his elbow on his knee, then raised the rifle to his shoulder and sighted on the lead wolf. He was about 150 yards away from the two wolves, and he was looking down on them so it would be a difficult shot. But he figured that even if he didn't kill them, he might at least be able to drive them away from the calf.
Smoke squeezed the trigger. The rifle kicked back against his shoulder as smoke bellowed from the end of the barrel. When the smoke rolled away, he saw the lead wolf lying on its side, a spreading pool of red staining the snow.
The other wolf turned and ran quickly toward the trees, kicking up little puffs of snow as it did so. Smoke jacked another round into the chamber and aimed at the second wolf. His finger tightened on the trigger; then he eased the pressure, and lowered his rifle.
"Don't reckon I should shoot you for doingwhat your instinct tells you to do," Smoke said quietly. "I just don't want you doin' it to my cows. Specially not this year."
Smoke rode down to the wolf he had killed, then dismounted. His bullet had hit the animal just behind his left foreleg, penetrated the heart, and killed it instantly. The wolf's eyes were still open, his tongue still hanging out of his mouth. Strangely, Smoke felt a sense of sadness.
"I'm sorry I had to do this, fella, but you didn't leave me any choice," Smoke said. "At least it was quick for you."
Smoke remounted, then rode on toward the calf. He looped his rope around the calf, then half-led and half-dragged it back to the herd. There, he removed the rope and watched as the calf hurried to join his mother.
What had once been a large herd was now pitifully small, having come through what they were calling the "Great Winter Kill." Hundreds of thousands of cattle had died out throughout the West this winter, and Smoke's Sugarloaf Ranch was no exception. He had started the winter with fifteen thousand head; he was now down to less than two thousand.
Smoke's only hope to save what remained of his herd was to push them into a box canyon and hope that it would shield them from any further winter blasts. He, Cal, and Pearlie were doing that very thing when he came across the wolves.
Looking up, Smoke saw Cal approaching him from the north end of the canyon opening, while at the same time Pearlie was approaching from the south. Even if he had not been able to see them, he would know they were coming toward him, because each of them was leaving a long, black trail in the snow.
Cal reached him first.
"What was the shootin'?"
"Wolves," Smoke answered.
"Yeah," Cal said. "Well, you can't much blame 'em, I guess. They're probably havin' as hard a winter as we are. Same with all the other creatures, which is why they're goin' after cattle, rather than deer."
"Wolves?" Pearlie asked, arriving then.
"Yes, they were after a calf," Smoke said.
"Too bad you didn't see them a little earlier."
"What do you mean?"
Pearlie twisted in his saddle and pointed back down the black smear that marked his path through the snow. "Three calves back there, or what's left of 'em. Killed by wolves."
"Maybe we ought to put out some poisoned meat," Cal suggested.
Smoke shook his head. "I don't care to do that. Besides, there are enough animals around, frozen to death, that they probably wouldn't take the bait."
"You'd think they'd go after the dead ones, and leave the live ones alone," Pearlie said.
"The dead ones are frozen hard as a rock. They want something alive because it's warmer, and easier to eat," Smoke said.
"Speaking of something warm and easy to eat, you think maybe Miss Sally fixed us up any bear claws?" Pearlie asked.
"Does the sun come up in the east?" Cal asked.
Smoke chuckled. "I expect she did," he said. He stood in his stirrups and looked down toward the small herd. "We've got them in the canyon now; that's about all we can do for them. Let's head for the house."
The three started back toward the house, which was some five miles distant. A ride that, in good weather, would take no more than thirty minutes stretched into an hour because of the heavy fall of snow. The horses labored to cut through the drifts, which were sometimes chest high, and their heavy breathing formed clouds of vapor that drifted away into the fading light.
The three riders said nothing, lost in their own thoughts as they rode back toward the main house.
The oldest of the three, and the ranch owner, was Kirby "Smoke" Jensen. Smoke stood just over six feet tall, and had shoulders as wide as an ax handle and biceps as thick as most men's thighs. He had never really known his mother, and when he was barely in his teens, he went with his father into the mountains to follow the fur trade. The father and son teamed up with a legendary mountain man called Preacher. For some reason, unknown even to Preacher, the mountain man took to the boy and began to teach him the ways of the mountains: how to live when others would die, how to be a man of your word, and how to fear no other living creature. On the first day they met, Preacher, whose real name was Art, gave Kirby a new name. That name, Smoke, would one day become a legend in the West, and after a while, even Kirby thought of himself as Smoke Jensen.
Smoke was in his thirties, a happily married landowner whose ranch, Sugarloaf, had the potential to be one of the finest ranches in the state. For the last three or four years, Sugarloaf had lived up to its potential, so much so that Smoke had borrowed money to expand the ranch. He bought more land, built a new barn and bunkhouse, added onto the big house, and bought more cattle.
Then the winter hit. Blizzard followed blizzard as the temperature plummeted to record lows. All across the West cattle died in record numbers. Tens of thousands of cattle froze to death, thousands more died of starvation because they couldn't get to the food, while nearly as many died of thirst because the streams and creeks were frozen solid under several feet of snow.
Ironically, the smaller ranchers were better able to ride it out than the bigger ranchers, who had more land, more cattle, and much more to lose. In one terrible winter, Smoke Jensen had gone from being one of the wealthiest ranchers in Colorado to a man who was struggling to hang onto his ranch.
"Smoke, if you want, I'll take the lead ... let my horse break trail for a while," Pearlie called up to him. The three men were riding in single file, the two behind the leader taking advantage of the lead horse breaking a trail through the snow.
"Sure, come on up," Smoke invited, moving to one side of the trail to let Pearlie pass.
A few years earlier, Pearlie had been a gunman, hired by a man who wanted to run Smoke off the land so he could ride roughshod over those who were left. But Pearlie didn't take to killing and looting from innocent people, so he quit his job. He had stopped by to tell Smoke that he was leaving when Smoke offered to hire him.
Since that time Pearlie had worked for Smoke and Sally. He stood just a shade less than six feet tall, was lean as a willow branch, had a face tanned the color of an old saddle, and a head of wild, unruly black hair. His eyes were mischievous and he was quick to smile and joke, but underneath his friendly demeanor was a man that was as hard as iron and as loyal to his friends as they come.
"I'll ride second," Cal said, passing with Pearlie. "That way I can take the lead in a few minutes."
Not too long after Pearlie had joined the ranch, a starving and destitute Cal, who was barely in his teens at the time, made the mistake of trying to rob Sally. Instead of turning him over to the sheriff, Sally brought him home and made him one of the family, along with Pearlie. Now Calvin Woods was Pearlie's young friend and protégé in the cowboy life.
The three men rode on in silence for the next fifteen minutes, frequently changing the lead so that one horse wouldn't be tired out. Finally they crested a hill, then started down a long slope. There, half a mile in front of them, the ranch compound spread out over three acres, consisting of the main house, bunkhouse, barn, corral, and toolshed.
In the setting sun the snow took on a golden glow, and the scene could have been a Currier and Ives painting come to life.
The main house, or "big" house as the cowboys called it, was a rather large, two-story Victorian edifice, white, with red shutters and a gray-painted porch that ran across the front and wrapped around to one side. The bunkhouse, which was also white with red shutters, sat halfway between the big house and the barn. The barn was red.
A wisp of smoke curled up from the kitchen chimney, and as the three approached, they could smell the aroma of baking.
"Yep! She made some," Pearlie said happily. "I tell you the truth, if Miss Sally don't make the best bear claws in Colorado, then I'll eat my hat."
"Hell, that ain't no big promise, Pearlie," Cal said. "The kind of appetite you got, you eat anything that gets in your way. I wouldn't be that surprised if you hadn't already et your hat a time or two."
"That ain't no ways funny," Pearlie complained. "I ain't never et none of my hats."
"But there ain't no danger of you eatin' your hat anyhow 'cause you're right," Cal said. "Miss Sally does make the best bear claws in Colorado."
Sally was a schoolteacher when Smoke met her, but she was far from the demure schoolmarm one most often thought of when picturing a schoolteacher. Sally could ride, rope, and shoot better than just about any man, and yet none of that detracted from her feminine charms. She was exceptionally pretty and her kitchen skills matched any woman and surpassed most.
The bear claws that Pearlie was referring to were sweet, sugar-coated doughnuts. They were famous throughout the county, and some men had been known to ride ten miles out of their way to drop by the Sugarloaf just on the off chance she'd have a platter of them made up and cooling on the windowsill.
The three men rode straight to the barn, where they unsaddled their horses, then turned them into warm stalls with hay and water. They took off their coats, hats, and boots on the enclosed back porch, dumping the snow and cleaning their boots before they went inside.
The house was warm and cozy, and it smelled of coffee, roast beef, fresh-baked bread, bear claws, and wood burning in the fireplace. Sally greeted Smoke with a kiss and the other two with affectionate hugs.
Around the dinner table the four talked, joked, and laughed over the meal. And yet, as Sally studied her husband's face, she knew that, just beneath his laughing demeanor, he was a worried man. It wasn't so much what he said, as what was left unsaid. Smoke had always been a man filled with optimism and plans for the future. It had been a long time since she had heard him mention any of his plans for improving and expanding the ranch.
* * *
Sally had no idea what time it was when she rolled over in bed, still in that warm and comfortable state of half-sleep. She reached out to touch Smoke, but when she didn't feel him in bed with her, the remaining vestige of sleep abandoned her and she woke up, wondering where he was.
Outside, the snow glistened under the bright full moon so that, even though it was the middle of the night, the bedroom was well lit in varying degrees of silver and black. A nearby aspen tree waved in a gentle night breeze and as it did so, it projected its restless shadow onto the softly glowing wall. Smoke's shadow was there as well, for he was standing at that very window, looking out into the yard.
"Smoke?" Sally called out in a soft, concerned voice.
"I'm sorry, darlin'," Smoke replied. "Did I wake you?" Sally sat up, then brushed a fall of blond hair back from her face. "Are you all right?" she asked.
"You're worried, aren't you?"
Smoke paused for a long moment before he answered. Then, with a sigh, he nodded.
"I won't lie to you, Sally," he said. "We may lose everything."
Sally got out of bed and padded across the room. Then, wrapping her arms around him, she leaned into him.
"No," she said. "As long as we have each other, we won't lose everything."
Chapter TwoThe banker leaned back in his chair and put his hands together, making a steeple of his fingers. He listened intently as Smoke made his case.
"I'm sure I'm not the only one coming to you with problems," Smoke said. "I reckon this winter has affected just about everyone."
Joel Matthews nodded. "It has indeed," he said. "Right now our bank has over one hundred fifty thousand dollars in bad debt. I'll tell you the truth, Smoke. We are in danger of going under ourselves."
Smoke sighed. "Then it could be that I'm just wasting my time talking to you."
Matthews drummed his fingers on the desk for a moment, then looked down at Smoke's account.
"You have a two-thousand-dollar note due in thirty days," he said.
"What, exactly, are you asking?"
"I'm asking for a sixty-day extension of that note."
The banker turned at his desk and looked at the calendar on the wall behind him. The picture was an idealized night scene in the mountains. Below a full moon a train was crossing a trestle, its headlight beam stretching forward and every car window glowing unrealistically.
"Your note is due on April 30th," he said. "A sixty-day extension would take you to June 30th. Do you really think you can come up with the two thousand dollars by then?"
"I know that I cannot by April 30th, and I'll be honest with you, Joel. I don't know if I will have the money by June 30th either. But if any of my cattle survive the rest of this winter, I will at least have a chance."
"Smoke, can you make a two-hundred-dollar payment on your note? That would be ten percent."
Smoke shook his head. "Maybe a hundred," he said.
"That's about the best I can do right now."
Matthews sighed. "I'll never be able to convince the board to go along with it, unless you can at least pay ten percent on the loan."
Smoke nodded. "I understand," he said. He started to stand, but Matthews held out his hand.
"Wait a minute," he said.
"I know how you can come up with a hundred fifty dollars, if you are willing to do a job for me."
"A job for you?"
"Well, for the bank, actually," Matthews said. "It will take you about three days."
"Three days work for a hundred fifty dollars? I'll do it," Smoke said.
"Don't you even want to know what it is?" "Is it honest work?"
"Oh, yes, it's honest all right. It might also be dangerous."
"I'll do it," Smoke said.
"Yes, I didn't think you would be a person who would be deterred by the possibility of danger. But just so that you know what you are letting yourself in for, we have a rather substantial money shipment coming by stagecoach from Sulphur Springs. If you would ride as a special guard during the time of the shipment, I will pay you one hundred fifty dollars."
Smoke gasped. "One hundred fifty dollars just to ride shotgun? It's not that I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth, Joel, but shotgun guards make about twenty dollars a month, don't they?"
"So why would you be willing to pay me so much?"
"We are bringing in over twenty thousand dollars," Matthews said. He sighed, then opened the drawer of his desk and pulled out a newspaper. "And the damn fool editor over at Sulphur Springs has seen fit to run a front page story about it."
Matthews turned the paper around so Smoke could see the headlines of the lead story.
Excerpted from Betrayal of the Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2006 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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