In the depth of a cruel High Lonesome winter comes a cryptic message for Smoke Jensen. The letter tells of skullduggery by gold barons, railroad magnates, and Chinese tongs in San Francisco. Smoke knows only one person in the city by the bay: the well-rounded, open-natured Francie, mistress of one of the town's most notorious pleasure palaces.
Smoke once rescued her from raiding Cheyenne, but now Madame Francie is mysteriously dead . . . and Smoke's arrival in San Francisco is less than welcoming. Then, on the waterfront, he learns of a plot by the wealthy, the mighty, and the deadly to expand their stronghold over the region's gold-rich lands. Beating a trail into the High Sierras, Smoke recruits a band of angry prospectors, ranchers, and farmers for a final showdown that could be the end of Smoke Jensen . . .
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Winter had poised to blow its way across the High Lonesome. Most of the aspens had lost their leaves. Those that remained glowed in a riot of yellow and red. The maples and scrub oak resisted stubbornly, greenness proclaiming their independence dotted in among the less hearty trees. Smoke Jensen took a draw on the flavorful cigar and sent his gray gaze out across the vista of his beloved Sugarloaf Ranch while the white ribbons rose from around the stogie.
It wouldn't be long, he mused, before a thick blanket of snow covered everything in sight. Which reminded him of the letter he held in his hand. It had come from San Francisco that morning, brought by a ranch hand who had gone to Big Rock for the weekly mail run. Smoke cut his eyes to the brief message, only a single line.
"Come at once. Meet me at Francie's." It was signed simply with a bold L.
Because of where they were to meet and of whom he suspected as the sender, Smoke refrained from mentioning the cryptic message to his wife Sally. That he would go went without question. Despite the harsh winter looming over them, he would not suggest that his lovely wife accompany him to the more hospitable clime. He sighed gustily and ran long, strong fingers through his hair, pleased to reflect that only thin threads of gray showed at his temples. As to breaking the news of his departure, he had better get to that right away.
Smoke Jensen lifted himself out of the cane-bottom chair he had tilted back against the outer wall of his home on the Sugarloaf. Once a tight, square cabin of fir logs, it now sprawled with the additions brought on by a large family. He crossed to the door and entered. At once his nostrils twitched and swelled to the delicious scent of a pie baking. Drawn by that tempting aroma, he gained the kitchen with a broad grin on his face, his unpleasant mission forgotten for the moment. He negotiated the floor on cat feet and caught Sally with both big hands around her still-trim waist. She gave only the slightest of starts at the contact, then looked over her shoulder, long curls dancing.
"It's the last of the blackberries. I thought you'd like it."
"I know I will," young Bobby Jensen chirped from the big, round oak table in the center of the expanded room.
Smoke turned to the boy, surprise written on his face. "I thought you were out with the hands."
"I woulda been, but ..." Bobby elevated a bare foot, a strip of white rag tied around his big toe. "I got this big ol' splinter when I went to wash up this morning."
"You'll live," Smoke told him with a grin.
Smoke and Sally had adopted Bobby Harris several years ago, after Smoke had been forced to kill the boy's abusive father. The elder Harris had been a brute, a drunk who'd tormented both people and animals. He had gone after Smoke Jensen with a pitchfork while Smoke's back had been turned. Bobby's shout of alarm had saved Smoke's life.
On an important mission to help old friends in Mexico, Smoke had sent the orphaned lad to the Sugarloaf and put him in Sally's charge. What had forged that decision had been Bobby's revelation that Harris, Sr., had killed the lad's mother some months previous. For all his reputation as a deadly gunfighter — the best ever, many maintained — his past did not harden Smoke from compassion for the boy. Sally would take care of Bobby, since there was no way he could go where Smoke was headed. Bobby's sunny smile recalled Smoke to the kitchen. By God, the lad would soon be thirteen.
"Oh, I know that. It just stings, and my toe swelled up too much to put in a boot."
Sally recognized the distracted expression Smoke wore and came right to the point. "There's something in that letter I don't know about," she challenged.
"I was coming to tell you. Maybe you ought to check on that pie and then get a cup of coffee and come sit at the table."
Sally frowned. "Bad news." Then she added, "As always." She complied, however, and when seated, Smoke revealed the summons to San Francisco. When he concluded, Sally fought back her disappointment and provided, "You're going, of course."
"I have to, Sally. You know as well as I who probably sent that."
Sally's scowl deepened. "I've no doubt. And that always spells danger."
"Danger for who?" Bobby piped up.
Smoke and Sally shot him a look. "For whom," she corrected automatically, then answered his question. "Smoke, of course," she advised him. "But mostly for anyone who gets in his way."
That made Bobby's day. His face lit up with expectation. "You're goin' gunnin' for someone, huh, Smoke?"
Smoke Jensen sighed wearily and shook his head. "Not if I can help it. I really don't know what to expect. But I'll be leaving early in the morning. Sally, make sure there's plenty of firewood and supplies laid in, who knows when I'll be back?" He shrugged. "Then all I can think of is that you all bundle up tight for the winter."
Shortly after sunrise, Smoke Jensen fastened the last strap on his saddlebags and swung atop his 'Palouse stallion, Thunder. He had kissed Sally goodbye minutes earlier and had left her at the kitchen table, her eyes bright with suppressed tears. Now, as he turned his mount south, toward the main gate of the ranch and the town of Big Rock beyond, Sally came from the back door, a shawl over her shoulders to stave off the morning chill.
She hurried to his side, calling his name. Smoke turned and bent low as Sally reached him and stood on tiptoe, arms out to embrace the man she loved with all her heart. Deeply moved by her affection, Smoke kissed her ardently. When their embrace ended, he spoke gruffly.
"Always did have to have the last word, woman."
"Goodbye, Smoke, dearest. Be careful."
"You, too. And keep your friend close at hand."
"I will." Sally turned away so as not to have to witness the actual moment of Smoke's departure. When Thunder's hoofbeats faded down the lane to the ranch, she turned to wave at Smoke's back.
Mountain man instincts, imbued in him by his mentor, Preacher — -who some were starting to call, rightly or not, the First Mountain Man — -alerted Smoke Jensen to the presence of others even before Thunder twitched his big, black ears and swiveled them forward to listen down the trail. The stallion's spotted gray rump hide rippled in anticipation. Always cautious, even in this settled country, Smoke drifted off the trail, thankful that snow had not yet fallen. He dismounted and put a big, hard hand over Thunder's muzzle to prevent an unwanted greeting to others of the stallion's kind. Five minutes later, two young men rode into view.
They had the look about them of ranch hands and an air of that wandering fraternity loosely described as drifters. Smoke Jensen noted that their clothing was a cut above average. They wore their hats at a jaunty angle and rode easy in the saddle. Their conversation, when it reached his ears, convinced Smoke of the accuracy of his surmise.
"It's gettin' close to winter, Buck."
"Sure is, Jason. I sure hope there's a spread out here somewhere that'll take us on for the winter. Be dang cold tryin' to get by on our own."
"No foolin', Buck. But you know, I hear there's old cabins hereabouts, shanties put up by the fur traders. We could settle down in one of them."
"What are we gonna use to buy supplies?" Buck challenged.
Jason considered it in silence as they approached the spot where Smoke Jensen had concealed himself off the trail. "I reckon that's why we should find us a place to earn some cash money."
"Don't no moss grow on you, Jase."
That decided Smoke. He led Thunder by the headstall onto the trail. Startled, the riders reined abruptly, then raised their hands, eyes wide. "You ain't gonna rob us, is you, Mister?"
Smoke chuckled. "No — nothing like that. I overheard you talking about looking for work. As it happens, I could use a couple of hands right now." Smoke took stock of their location. Less than three miles from Big Rock. Couldn't take them back. "I can't take you there and introduce you around. I'll write you a note. Take it to Cole Travis, my winter foreman, and to my wife, Sally."
"Why, that's mighty generous of you, Mister ...?"
"The name's Jensen."
"Right, Mr. Jensen," Buck said. "We're obliged. I'm Buck Jarvis, an' this is Jason Rucker. We'll work hard for you, that I promise."
"I know you will, boys." Smoke's steely gray eyes told them why he did. "The Sugarloaf is ten miles up this trail, in a large highland valley. You'll make it about in time for dinner. Walk your horses slow. Takes time to accustom them to the altitude."
"Thank you, Mr. Jensen. You'll not regret this."
"Fine, boys. Let me do that note." Smoke delved in a shirt pocket for a scrap of paper and a stub of pencil.
After Smoke had parted from Buck and Jason, the young drifters pondered over the name. "Jensen, huh?" Buck intoned. "I wonder if he's any relation to you know who?"
"Naw, he couldn't be. That Smoke Jensen's a gunfighter and a cold-blooded killer. Ain't no way a man that nice would be related," Jason assured his partner.
In Big Rock, Smoke Jensen had a three hour wait for the D&RG daily train north to the Union Pacific junction. He left Thunder to be loaded on a stock car and walked down Main Street to the sheriff's office. Although Smoke was a skilled woodsman, the horse was an integral part of the life of a mountain man as in later years it became for the Texas cowboys. Old Preacher always grumbled when put to walking.
When Smoke had met Preacher, his life changed forever.
Mountain men invented rugged individualism. They personified self-reliance. And the man known to all as Preacher outdid them all. Preacher had named him Smoke the first day they'd met.
And "Smoke" he became from that day. Now, walking along the muddy, rutted central avenue in Big Rock, Smoke Jensen savored all that. Yet he missed Thunder's slab flanks between his legs more than he would admit, even to himself. Gratitude flooded him as he reached the open doorway to the sheriff's office.
"Don't you ever do any work?" Smoke bellowed at the man behind the desk inside, whose newspaper concealed his face, and whose ubiquitous black hat topped a thick mane of silver hair.
The boots came down from the desk with a thud and the copy of the Denver Post fluttered to the desk top. "Dang it now, Smoke Jensen. What the devil you mean, sneakin' up on a body like that?"
"Monte, you never change. I'm on my way to San Francisco, thought I'd stop by and let you know I'd be gone from the Sugarloaf."
"Glad you did. I've been hopin' for an excuse to go after a cup of coffee with a shot of rye in it. Let's go down to the Gold Field."
"Might as well. I've got a three-hour wait."
Out of doors again, the two old friends ambled down the street, lawman fashion — out in the middle, where no one could come at them suddenly from a doorway. Smoke Jensen had often trod both sides of the law. Yet he had always returned, passionately, to the side of decency. The main thing that had kept him from settling down and accepting a permanent badge, as Monte had done, was all the infernal walking a man had to do in the job. One could not rattle doorknobs from horseback. Of course, the deputy U.S. marshal's badge he carried in the fold of his wallet was another matter entirely.
None of the mundane details of a peace officer's routine stifled his freedom of movement or action. Smoke rarely used it, and he thought of it even less. Yet it was a comfort, given the reputation he had acquired, much of it the fanciful blathering of the authors of the penny dreadfuls and dime novels. More than once, his marshal's badge had gotten him out of tight spots. In the last few years he had not needed to resort to it often.
Perhaps the world had indeed passed him by while he'd languished in the beautiful valley that housed his ranch. He banished such thoughts when he realized Monte had been talking to him for some while.
"... Like I said, this country is getting downright tame."
"Uh — yep. Funny thing, I was just thinking the same thing," Smoke responded.
"Used to be, it was wild fights. Now, I don't bust the head of more than one rowdy drunk a week."
Smoke gave his friend a puzzled look. "You're complaining, Monte?"
Monte sucked his cheeks hollow as he contemplated that. "Well, now, I'm not sayin' that I object all that much. Bruises take longer to heal at my age. I caught me a winner of a shiner three weeks ago. The last of the yaller an' green faded out yesterday."
Smoke joined him in a hearty laugh. Abruptly, new voices, harsh and slurred by whiskey, interrupted their camaraderie. "What we got here?"
"Couple of old farts hoggin' the street, I'd say."
"You be right, Rupe. Hey, Grandpa, ain't you got horses? Or cain't you git up in the saddle anymore?"
"That's the ticket, Bri. You geezers get over on that boardwalk. The street is for men."
Brian's fourth companion joined in. "That big 'un's packin' iron, boys. S'pose he knows how to use it?"
The menace in his words froze Smoke Jensen and Monte Carson in their steps. Slowly, they turned as one to face their drunken tormentors. Arctic glaciers covered Smoke's words. "If you are looking for a lesson, I would be glad to oblige."
Monte laid a hand on Smoke's forearm. "No need for that, ol' hoss. Remember, you have a train to catch in less than three hours."
Brian got back into it. "D'ya hear that, Casey? This doddering idiot is calling you out."
Rupe got his two cents in, as well. "Fin, you think we oughta back up ol' Casey? That feller looks mighty mean."
Truth to tell, the years had been kind to Smoke Jensen. He still retained the barrel chest and large, powerful muscles of his youth. His face was creased, but with the squint lines of an outdoorsman. Only the faintest traces of gray could be seen at his temples. Those, and the streak of pure white where a bullet had once gouged his scalp, provided the only indications that he was not a man in his early thirties. The legendary speed of his draw had not diminished a jot. Still, he had no quarrel with these intoxicated louts. Smoke raised a hand in a gesture of peace.
"There'll be no gunfighting," he declared, in as soft a tone as he could manage.
With a skin full of liquor, Fin just had to push it. "Oh, yeah? You insulted my friends, and I'm not going to let you get away with it, old man."
Smoke cut his eyes to Monte and sighed heavily. "I don't see as how there's much you can do about it. My friend and I simply will not draw on you."
Swinging a leg over his mount, Brian issued a new challenge. "Then, what say we step down and pound you into the ground like a fence post?"
Smoke Jensen had run out of all his nice guy attitude. His eyes turned a dangerous ice-gray and narrowed while he drew on a pair of thin black leather gloves he carried folded over his cartridge belt. "If you try it, I'll have to kick your butt up between your shoulder blades."
That did it. Fin, Rupe, Brian, and Casey cleared their saddles and rushed at Smoke Jensen and Monte Carson. Brian swung a hard fist that did not connect. With surprising speed, Smoke had stepped back. Confused, Brian hesitated. Which gave Smoke time to set himself for a hog-stopper of a punch. A blissful smile lighted his face as he rapped Brian solidly in the teeth.
Blood flew from one tooth that broke off. Brian rocked back on his feet and shook his head. A red haze misted his eyes. To his left, Fin threw a punch that landed hard against Smoke's ribs. Without taking his gaze from Brian, Smoke snapped a sharp sideways right that landed in the center of Fin's sternum and put him on his butt. Smoke cut a quick glance Monte's way.
The marshal had all he could handle in Rupe and Casey. Arms windmilling, the young louts rained a series of blows down on Monte that drove him backward. While Smoke watched, the quick-moving youths drove Monte to one knee. This wouldn't be as easy as he had thought, Smoke realized, as he set himself to receive Brian's charge.
Excerpted from "Power of the Mountain Man"
Copyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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