Robber baron Clifton Satterlee is in greedy pursuit of a coveted piece of land in the New Mexico Territory. He plans to wrest the timber-rich hills from the Tua Pueblo and then populate the town with his own subservient labor force. Many will suffer as his thirst for blood equals his lust for wealth and power. But Saterlee has overlooked one mighty obstacle—the iron justice and deadly aim of the legendary mountain man Smoke Jensen. In triumph blood will be spilled . . .
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Triumph of the Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1997 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Once a week, a Sugarloaf hand rode into Big Rock, Colorado, to pick up the mail. Lost Ranger Peak brooded over the town, its 11,940foot summit covered by a mantle of white year-round. Often the journey proved to be nothing more than an excuse to spend an hour or two in the Bright Lights saloon. With the exception of Sally Jensen's sporadic correspondence with a few old school friends, scant mail ever came to the home of the fabled gunfighter, Smoke Jensen. On a fine morning in late April, then, Ike Mitchell, the Sugarloaf foreman, expressed his surprise when Smoke Jensen announced that he reckoned he would be the one to ride into Big Rock.
Ike hastened to relieve his employer of the burden. "No need to trouble yourself, Mr. Jensen. One of the boys can make the mail run."
"No trouble, Ike. I really feel like I ought to go." Smoke brushed at his reddish blond hair and gazed across the pastures of the Sugarloaf with his oddly gold-cast eyes. "There's some little — something — nagging me to make the ride into town."
Ike chuckled behind a big, work-hardened hand. The wings of gray hair at his temples waved in a light breeze. "Needin' a little time away from Miz Sally, eh?"
"Not exactly, Ike. Though I'll admit I would enjoy a good card game and a few schooners of beer with friends."
With a knowing wink, Ike encouraged Smoke. "You'll have time enough for that, like as not. Not many people know where the Sugarloaf is, let alone how to reach it by mail. Enjoy your day, Mr. Jensen."
"I will Ike. Anything I can bring you from town?"
Ike removed his black, low-crowned Stetson and scratched his head. "The missus could use a bottle of sulphur elixir to treat the young'uns for spring."
Smoke involuntarily made a face at the memory of that medical treatment. It had not been one of the things he missed when separated from his family and taken in by Preacher. "I'll get it, then. Only, don't tell your brood who it was brought it."
* * *
Amorous meadowlarks whistled to prospective mates as Smoke Jensen rode over the wooden bridge that spanned the Elk River. and entered Big Rock. He kept his Palouse stallion, Cougar, at a gentle walk. In spite of the chill in the air, the sun felt warm on his shoulders. He had left his working chaps behind, and wore a rust-colored pair of whipcord trousers, a green, yoke shirt and buckskin vest. Around his narrow waist he carried his famous — or infamous, according to some — pair of. 45 Colt Peacemakers. The right-hand one was slung low on his leg, the left in a pouch holster high on the cartridge belt, the butt pointed forward. Several writers of dime novels, Ned Buntline included, had made such a getup known to millions as a "gunfighter's rig."
Smoke looked on it as a practical necessity. The same as the .45-70500 Winchester Express rifle in the saddle scabbard. While not expecting trouble, Smoke had learned long ago that it paid to come prepared at all times. As his legendary mentor, Preacher, had said, "It tends to increase a feller's life span."
* * *
"Morning," Smoke greeted a teamster who struggled with the ten-up team hauling a precarious-looking load of logs on a bedless, cradle wagon. The man gave a wave as Smoke rode on.
Farther into town, the streets became more populous. Women in gingham dresses and bonnets, their shopping baskets clutched in gloved hands, clicked the heels of their black, high-button shoes on the boardwalk of the main street. Horses stood, hip-shot, outside the saddle maker's, the bank, three saloons and the general store. A couple of empty buckboards rattled in from another direction, while one was being loaded by a harassed-looking teenager in a white apron. A typical Saturday in Big Rock, Smoke allowed. He nosed Cougar toward the hitch rail in front of the general mercantile. There he dismounted and climbed to the plank walk.
Inside the store, Nate Barber, the owner, greeted Smoke warmly. "Not often enough we see you, Mr. Jensen. You sure picked a day for it. Got near a whole mail bag full for you."
Smoke raised a yellow-brown eyebrow. "That so? I wonder what the occasion might be?"
"Catalogue time again," the postmaster/merchant advised, then added a familiar complaint. "Those mail order outfits are going to be the ruin of stores like mine."
Smoke nodded and went to the caged counter, behind which ran a ceiling-high rank of pigeon-hole boxes to hold the mail. His, he noted, bulged with envelopes. Barber went into his small post office and bent to retrieve a stack of bound, soft-cover volumes. "Here you are, Mr. Jensen. I'll get those letters for you, too."
Smoke went quickly through the catalogues. He found the latest Sears issue for Sally, another for musical instruments by mail order, and one for himself, from a saddle and tack manufacturer. That might prove useful, he reasoned. Anything made of leather eventually wore out, and no manner of patching could salvage it in the end. Some of the breaking saddles used on the Sugarloaf had begun to look rather shabby. If the prices were lower for this outfit in San Angelo, Texas, than in Denver, he might order four new ones. Among the correspondence he found a creamy, thick envelope of obvious high quality, addressed to him in a rich, flowery script that denoted that the writer had learned his letters in a language other than English. The return address was Rancho de la Gloria, Taos, New Mexico Territory. Don Diego Alvarado, Smoke recognized at once.
Smoke had come to know Diego Alvarado several years ago, when he had been in New Mexico briefly on a cattle-buying trip. The gentlemanly, reserved Don Diego was the grandson of an original Spanish grandee, who had the patent of the King of Spain for roughly a thousand acres of high, mountainous desert to the west of Taos. His father had retained title to the land through service to the Mexican government after independence and had added to the family holdings. Steeped in the traditions of his ancestors' culture, Alvarado was a superb host who loved to entertain. Smoke had soon discovered that Diego's facade of reserve quickly vanished with a glass of tequila in one hand and a slice of lime in the other. The "little feast" put on for Smoke and his hands had turned out to be a three-day extravaganza of food and drink. They had paid for their lavish keep before leaving, however. Smoke and his men had joined the vaqueros of Rancho de la Gloria in fighting off a band of renegade Comanches who swarmed up out of the Texas panhandle.
Barber interrupted his speculation. "Need any supplies today, Mr. Jensen?"
"No, Nate, I didn't bring a wagon along. Say, do you happen to have any of that sulphur elixir?"
Nate Barber nodded. "Just happens I do, now that I bought out old Doc Phillips's stock from the apothecary shop. How many bottles?"
Smoke chuckled. "Ike's got six youngsters out there. Might as well make it two bottles."
The merchant produced the corked, seamless glass bottles and wrapped each in paper. Smoke noticed that the packaging material appeared to be printed pages. "Advertising your place now, Nate?"
Nate glanced down, then smiled as he cut his eyes to Smoke. "Nope. Discarded catalogues. Some folks find 'em a bother and toss 'em away."
Smoke nodded his understanding, paid for his purchase and took his mail and the medicine along. Outside, he stowed it all in his saddlebags, swung into the saddle, and directed Cougar toward his next stop. Monte Carson would no doubt be downing his twelfth cup of coffee about now.
"Smoke! How'er you doin'?" Monte Carson bellowed as Smoke entered the office portion of the jail. Smoke and the sheriff had been friends for many long years, ever since the time when Smoke foreswore the dangerous life of a gunfighter-for-hire and stood back-to-back with Monte to rid the streets of Big Rock of some mighty nasty gunhawks and saddle trash. They had done a fair job of cleaning up all of Routt County for that matter. Smoke Jensen wore a badge for the first time in his life then, and had done so often since. Not that Smoke had been an outlaw in the truest sense of the word. He had never stolen anything, nor had he taken money for killing a man. Yet, it was always a close thing for a gunfighter to prove self-defense in a shoot-out. Being fully and permanently on the side of the law had a good feeling. Smoke had Monte to thank for that.
He poured coffee for himself and used the toe of one boot to hook a captain's chair over by a rung. Seated, he faced Monte. "Well, Monte, I came in on the mail run."
"You expectin' somethin' important?"
"No, but it appears I got it anyway." He went on to tell Monte about the letter from Don Diego Alvarado.
"Why don't you open it up and find out what it is?" Monte asked. "Might be an invite to the wedding of one of his sons."
Smoke shook his head. "I doubt that. Last I heard, Alejandro was already married. Xavier is down in Mexico at some seminary, studying to become a priest. Pablo would be a mere boy in his teens. Lupe could be only eight or so, and Miguel was born not three years ago."
Always curious, Monte prompted his friend. "So? Open the dang thing up and get a look."
"I will. But, being it's near noon, I thought you'd like to join me for a schooner or two of beer and some of Hank's free lunch over at the Bright Lights."
Monte grinned and, coming to his boots, nodded his head in eagerness. "You buyin'?"
"Of course. Although I wouldn't want it to be considered bribing an officer of the law. I don't want to be a guest of the county for even half an hour."
Monte reached for a drawer. "Well, then, hang a deputy's badge on yer vest and we'll call it a treat among brother lawmen. You know I'll bend heaven and earth to get a free beer."
They laughed together as they left the office. It was a short enough walk, only across the street, Smoke left Cougar tied off in front of the jail. The bar of the Bright Lights was crowded when they entered, so they took a table near the back of the room. The resinous odor of fresh sawdust perfumed the saloon. Smoke and Monte ordered beer and then built sandwiches of thick-sliced country ham, Swiss cheese, and boiled buffalo tongue, all on home-baked bread. They added fat dill pickles and hard-boiled eggs to their plates and carried them to where they would sit.
After taking a bite and chewing thoroughly, Smoke asked Monte about the town. The lawman responded eagerly.
"Let me tell you about these two drifters who tried to rob Nate's general mercantile," Monte began around a bite of his huge sandwich. "This happened about a week ago. They went in with bandannas pulled up over their noses and six-guns out. Well, Nate had no mind to try to stop them. One of the saddle trash growled at him about giving up all the money. Nate did, and put it in a paper bag, like they asked. The one who took the bag must have had a sweet tooth, 'cause right then he spied a jar of rock candy on the counter. Like a kid who only gets to town once in six months, he set the bag full of money aside and made for that jar. He stuffed his shirt pockets full of candy, and the ones in his vest, too. Then he grabbed up the cash and started to back out the door with his partner.
"What he didn't know," Monte went on, fighting back laughter, "is that he set that paper sack on top of the pickle barrel. It was a new, unopened one, but the lid had sprung. The bottom of the bag got soaked, and the weight of the money caused it to fall through. Coins went ever which a way. Right then, Nate grabbed up his shotgun while the robbers gaped at the fluttering bills that still fell from the sack. He had 'em disarmed and hands in the air when a passerby saw what was happenin' and came over to get me."
Smoke joined Monte's chuckles. "They don't make desperados like they used to. That all the excitement you've had?"
"Nope. Mrs. Granger had another baby, her eighth. Her husband swore he thought they were both too old for that to happen. A boy. That makes five boys and three girls."
"And all living?" Smoke inquired.
"Yep. By some miracle. Oh, yeah, how'd you fare out at the Sugarloaf in that thunderstorm middle of last week?"
"Not bad. Barely a shower there."
Monte frowned. "Might lot more around here. A regular goose-drownder. The Elk River went over its banks all along the valley. We had tree trunks and driftwood floating down Tom Longley Street for two days."
Smoke bit, chewed, and swallowed before remarking, "I thought it looked a mite damp along there."
"'Damp' don't get it by about three feet, Smoke. Had some of the merchants writin' to the governor to ask for help in cleanup and repair. Hell, any fool knows the government ain't got any money. Only that they take from the people in taxes."
Smoke nodded agreement. "And I remember the time when a decent man wouldn't ask for a handout when he could make do for himself."
Monte put on a poker face. "But I reckon times they are a-changin'. It's gettin' too civilized around here."
Smoke slapped a big palm on one thigh. "Don't get me started on that. Any other urgent news?"
"Only that my chief deputy, Sam Barnes, was sparking the young widow Phillips last Sunday at the church box supper social."
"You mean the pretty young thing that some gossips are saying put old Doc Phillips in an early grave?"
"The same. A man's shy some gravy for his grits when he brings one home that's not half his age. Mind, I don't know about their home life and have no desire to speculate. She's a looker, though."
"That she is, Monte." In silence, they returned to their food.
* * *
Ace Banning paused to extinguish a quirley before he entered the bank in Big Rock. Few people remained in the lobby this close to noon. The bank would close in five minutes, according to the oak-cased wall clock that hung on the far wall. He waited behind a weighty dowager at one teller cage, and when his turn came, he asked for change for a twenty-dollar gold double-eagle. All the while, his eyes shifted, taking note of the layout of the establishment. Would they shut the vault at noon? He doubted it. There were two armed guards. That made Ace think of his friends waiting outside.
Shem Turnbull and George Cash lounged in front of the Bucket O' Suds saloon, two doors down from the bank. As noon neared, the street began to clear of people. Most of the shops closed over the dinner hour. Carefully they eyed passersby. Many of the men were armed. Those who were going home would be no trouble. Already a line had formed outside the eatery on the corner, and those would have to be closely watched. Shem turned to George.
"We shoulda brought another gun. Three fellers is not enough to carry this off."
"Oh, I don't know, Shem. They won't be expectin' anything, and their minds will be on their dinners. Ace can handle it real good."
"Not without a little help from you," Ace Banning declared as he walked up to his friends. "Shem, I want you inside with me. There's two armed guards. We've got only a minute, so let's move."
* * *
Smoke Jensen downed the last of his second schooner of beer, pushed back his chair, and dug in his pocket for a cartwheel dollar. "I'll walk over to the office with you, but then I have to head right back. I've got three mares who are due to foal at any time."
"You never opened that letter from Alvarado," Monte complained good-naturedly.
"That's right. I'll have to read it when I get home." Then reading his friend's expression, he added, "I'll let you know what Don Diego wrote about."
They had reached the tall, double doors with the painted glass inserts when the sound of a gunshot came from the direction of the bank. A woman's scream followed. Smoke turned that way at once, to be stopped when Monte laid a hand on his shoulder.
"I'll take care of this, Smoke. No need for you to stick your neck out."
Smoke cut his eyes to his friend and growled, "Even if I want to?"
Monte shook his head. "Not this time."
He set off for the bank. Monte made it halfway down the block before the outside man saw him coming and fired his six-gun from the lawman's blind side. The bullet struck Monte in the chest. Deflected as it punched through a rib, the slug cut a path through his lung from front to rear and buried itself in the thick muscle of his back. Shock took Monte off his boots. At once, Smoke started for him.
"Watch it, there's one over there somewhere." A pink froth formed on Monte's lips, and his voice came out far weaker than he expected.
Excerpted from Triumph of the Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1997 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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