When an old friends family is massacred, legendary mountain man Smoke Jensen hits the vengeance trail. He's soon riding into a bloody Colorado war that has militia cavalry volunteers and Kiowa warriors stalking each other across the territory--matching kill for kill, outrage for outrage. Defying both sides, Smoke uncovers a sinister conspiracy to set ranchers and Kiowas at each other's throats. It turns out that the war's been cooked up by renegade Jack Tatum and his outlaw band, who stand to reap a fortune in gold by selling illegal guns and whiskey to the Indians. High atop the Rockies, a blizzard's white hell sets the stage for the final showdown with Tatum's bloody gang, as the mountain man unleashes an avalanche of destruction. Now his enemies are about to learn that the only thing Smoke Jensen sells is death...wholesale.
Smoke Jensen was in front of the hardware store, looping the reins of his horse around the hitching rail, when he heard the gunshot. Sometimes, in drunken play, shots were fired into the floor or in the air. Most of the citizens of Big Rock had learned to tell the difference between the sound of a shot fired in play and one fired in anger.
This shot, fired at ten-fifteen A.M. on a Tuesday morning in October, was fired in anger.
Suddenly, a man burst from the front door of the bank, which was located about two blocks west of the hardware store. It was Rich Flowers, one of the bank tellers.
"They're robbing the bank! They're robbing the bank!" Flowers shouted. "Help, somebody, they're. . ."
That was as far he got before a masked man appeared in the doorway of the bank, clutching a bag in one hand and a pistol in the other. The masked man raised his pistol and fired at Flowers, hitting him in the back. Flowers fell face-down in the dirt.
Up and down the street there were screams and shouts of fear and alarm. Citizens of the town scrambled to get out of the way: running into nearby doorways, ducking behind watering troughs or around the corners of buildings. Three more masked men appeared in the bank door, firing their weapons indiscriminately. There was a scream from inside Mrs. Pynchon's dress shop. The crash of glass followed as a woman tumbled through the window and fell onto the boardwalk, bleeding from her wound.
"Clear the street, clear the street!" one of the bank robbers shouted, waving his pistol. "Everybody get off the street!" He punctuated his demand with more pistol shots.
Although most of the citizens obeyed the bank robbers' orders, Smoke Jensen did not. Instead he strolled, almost casually, to his horse, and pulled his rifle from its saddle holster. Then, jacking a shell into the chamber, he stepped out into the middle of the street, raised the rifle to his shoulder, and fired at one of the bank robbers. The bank robber went down.
"What the hell!" one of the other robbers shouted. "Where did that come from?"
"Down there!" another said, pointing to Smoke.
The robber aimed at Smoke and fired, but he was using a pistol, and he missed. Smoke returned fire, and didn't miss.
Now there were only two of the robbers left.
"Get the money and let's get out of here!" one of the two shouted. The other robber tried to retrieve the money bag from the hands of one of the two robbers Smoke had killed, but Smoke put a bullet in his leg and he went down.
The last robber, now seeing that he was alone and outgunned by the man with the rifle, threw his pistol down and put his hands up.
"Don't shoot! Don't shoot!" he shouted. "I quit!" Keeping the robber covered, Smoke walked toward him. By now, most of the townspeople realized that Smoke had everything under control. They started coming back into the street, heading toward the bank and the two robbers who were left alive: one standing with his hands up, the other, groaning and bleeding, lying in the dirt.
"Who are you, mister?" the one who was still standing asked.
"Why do you need to know?" Smoke replied. "It's not like we're going to be friends, or anything."
Some of the citizens of the town, now close enough to hear the exchange, laughed.
"Mister, you just been brought down by Smoke Jensen," someone said. "And if it's any consolation to you, he's beaten many a man better than you."
By now, Sheriff Monte Carson was also on the scene, and he took the two robbers into custody.
"What about my leg?" the wounded robber asked. "I got me a bullet in my leg. I need a doctor. I'm your prisoner, and the law says you got to get me a doctor."
"We've only got one doctor in this town, mister," Monte replied. "And right now he's seeing to Mrs. Pynchon and Mr. Flowers. You better hope neither one of them dies, 'cause if either of them does, you'll both be hung for murder. Let's go." Monte made a motion toward the jail.
"I can't walk on this leg, I tell you."
"'Couple you men. . . help him," Monte said.
With assistance from two onlookers, the wounded man and his uninjured partner crossed the street and entered the jail.
"We've got two nice rooms just waiting for you," Monte said, opening the doors to adjacent jail cells.
"When's the doctor going to look at my leg?"
"When he gets around to it," Monte replied. "In the meantime, if I were you, I'd just lie on the bunk there and take it easy."
"It hurts," the wounded prisoner insisted.
"Yeah, I reckon it does. What are your names?" Monte asked.
"I'm Jack Tatum," the uninjured man said. He nodded toward the other robber, who had taken Monte's advice and was now lying on the bunk. "His name is Billy Petrie."
"Tatum?" Monte said. "I've seen that name." He opened the drawer of his desk and took out a pile of wanted posters. After looking through several of them, he pulled one out. "Ah, here it is. This is you, isn't it?"
Monte turned the poster so Tatum could see it.
WANTED JACK TATUM For Murder and Robbery $5,000 Reward to be paid DEAD OR ALIVE
"Only five thousand? They're a bunch of skinflints," Tatum snorted. "Hell, I'm worth more than that."
"Proud of it, are you?" Monte asked. He pulled out a tablet and began writing. "I reckon I'd better get a telegram off. No doubt some folks are going to be happy to hear that you are out of business."
"Sheriff, what are you going to do about that fella that murdered my two friends?" Tatum asked.
Monte looked up from his desk. "I beg your pardon? Did you say murdered?"
"Yeah, I said murdered, 'cause that's what he done. We wasn't shootin' anybody, we was just shootin' in the air to clear the street. Next thing I know, that bank teller was down, then that woman come crashin' through the window, then Fuller and Howard, then Billy was shot. The fella doing the shooting -- Jensen, I think someone said -- was a crazy man, sending bullets flying everywhere. You ask me, he's the one who should be locked up in here."
"Are you trying to tell me that you didn't have anything to do with shooting Mr. Flowers or Mrs. Pynchon?"
"That's what I'm telling you," Tatum said.
"I'll give you this, Tatum. You've got gall, telling a lie like that when the whole town saw what you did."
"Well, now, some folks may have seen it one way and some the other," Tatum replied. "We are going to get a trial, aren't we? Or do you plan to just hang us?"
"You'll get a fair trial," Monte replied. He paused for a moment, then chuckled. "Then we'll hang you."
Dr. Spaulding came into Monte's office then, and set his bag on the corner of Monte's desk.
"How's Mrs. Pynchon?" Monte asked.
"She'll be all right. The bullet went all the way through her upper arm, but it didn't hit any bones."
Doc Spaulding shook his head. "Dead. He was dead before I even got to him."
"That's a shame. Flowers was a nice man."
"Yes, he was. And the really sad thing is, Edna, his wife, is going to have a baby."
"Damn, that's a shame. What about the two bank robbers? Both dead?"
"Listen, Doc, I want you to do me a favor. Take the bullets out of the bodies. No doubt the court will need them for evidence."
"All right. I understand one of your prisoners is wounded?"
"Yeah, he's on his cot back there. He took a bullet in his leg."
"I'll take a look at it," Spaulding said, picking up his bag and heading toward the cell.
"Sheriff," Tatum called.
Sighing, Monte looked up at him. "What is it now, Tatum?"
"I want to see a lawyer. That's my right, ain't it? To see a lawyer?"
"You have that right," Monte agreed. "And if I don't have one, you have to appoint him?"
"Then appoint a lawyer for me and get him over here," Tatum demanded.
In the cell next to Tatum, Billy Petrie started screaming.
"Hold still, young man," Doc Spaulding said. "If I don't get this bullet out, you're likely to lose that leg. Here, here's some laudanum."
The laudanum took effect, and the prisoner's screams turned to a few moans and groans. Doc Spaulding, ever the caregiver, spoke in quiet, reassuring tones as he worked on Petrie.
Monte was just finishing the telegram he was going to send when Dewey Wallace, a recently hired deputy, came in.
"Whoowee, the town is really buzzing over all the excitement this morning," Wallace said, walking over to the little stove to pour himself a cup of coffee.
"Is Welch seeing to the bodies yet?" Monte asked.
"You bet. He had his measuring tape out before they were cold. Want a cup of coffee?"
"No, thanks," Monte said. He tore the sheet of paper off his pad. "As soon as you finish your coffee, take this down to the telegraph office."
"All right," Wallace said. Sipping the coffee, he looked at the sheriff's message, then whistled. "You think they'll pay Smoke Jensen that reward?"
"I don't know why they shouldn't," Monte said.
Wallace walked over to the jail cells and stood just outside the bars, looking at the two prisoners as he drank his coffee. "So, what were you fellas thinkin'?" Wallace asked. "Did you think we're such a small town you could just come in here and rob our bank, then leave without so much as a fare-thee-well?"
Tatum glared at the deputy, but said nothing.
"Quiet, huh?" Wallace said, chuckling. "Well, I reckon you won't be so quiet when we string you up." Holding his hand beside his neck to represent a rope, he made a jerking motion, then gave his impression of a death rattle. He followed that with a laugh. "Yeah, you won't be so quiet then," he said.
"Wallace, get the hell away from the cells and quit bothering the prisoners," Monte said. "Take that telegram down to Western Union like I told you."
"All right, Sheriff. Whatever you say," Wallace said, draining the rest of his coffee.
As Wallace was leaving, Doc Spaulding came back from Petrie's cell.
"I don't know what I was thinking when I hired that boy," Monte said.
"Ahh, he'll come around," Spaulding said. He dropped a small piece of lead on the corner of Monte's desk. "Here's the bullet I took from his leg."
"What is it? A .44-40?"
"Is that what Jensen was shooting?"
"Then that's what it is. Of course, it's pretty hard to tell the difference between a .44 and .44-40, seeing as they are so close to the same size and weight."
"That's true," Monte agreed. He had opened a small notebook and was looking through it. Then, when he found what he was looking for, he groaned. "Jensen's not going to like this."
"Who's not going to like what?" Doc Spaulding asked as he closed his bag.
"Sam Covington is next in line to be the public defender."
Doc Spaulding chuckled. "You're right," he said. "He's not going to like it."
"I'll tell you who else won't like it. Norton, the prosecuting attorney. If anyone can make a case out of this, it will be Sam Covington."
"Covington's good, all right."
"Good has nothing to do with it. As far as I know, every lawyer in the county is good. But Covington is more than good, he is ruthless. He'll do anything it takes to win a case, any case. It doesn't matter to Covington whether something is right or wrong or whether someone is guilty or innocent. All that matters to him is who wins and who loses."
* * *
When Smoke Jensen returned home to Sugarloaf, he dismounted and untied a sack from the pommel. He had gone into town to get a few things at the hardware store, and despite the excitement of the morning, he had not lost sight of his objective.
The aroma of fried chicken assailed his nostrils as he entered the house, and going into the kitchen, he saw Sally standing over the stove. He stepped up behind and put his arms around her, then pulled her to him, nuzzling his cheek against hers. She leaned back into him.
"Uhmm-uhm, that smells good," he said.
"What smells good?" Sally replied. "The fried chicken, or the five-dollar-an-ounce perfume I'm wearing?"
"Uh. . . the, uh. . . perfume of course," Smoke stammered. "Well, the chicken too, but definitely the perfume."
Sally laughed. "You are the biggest liar I know. Not only am I not wearing any perfume, you know full well that I would never be foolish enough to spend five dollars for one ounce. Especially when I could put essence of fried chicken behind my ears and accomplish the same thing, as far as you are concerned.
"Well, as far as I'm concerned, you don't need perfume or fried chicken," Smoke said. "To me, you always smell good."
"Uh-huh, don't you try and butter me up now, Mr. Smoke Jensen. Especially after what happened in town today. You go into town to make a simple purchase at the hardware store and you wind up in a gunfight."
Smoke picked up a drumstick from the platter of chicken that was already done and began eating. "How'd you hear about it so fast?"
"Well, I'm glad to see that you aren't going to deny it. Mrs. Fremont was in town and she saw the whole thing. You better believe she couldn't wait to stop by and tell me about it."
"She always was a busybody."
"You can't blame her. She figures that is her purpose in life."
"Then you also heard about Rich Flowers?"
Sally nodded. "Yes, I heard. And poor Edna is pregnant. Pregnant and a widow. It's terrible. But you had no business putting yourself on the line like that. One man against four? Did you want to make me a widow too? What were you thinking?"
"I don't know. It just seemed like the thing to do at the time," Smoke said.
Smoke knew that Sally's bark was worse than her bite, because he knew that had she been there, she quite likely would have joined him. Sally was as good with a gun as just about any man Smoke had ever met. She was lightning fast and deadly accurate with a pistol. A trick she liked to do was to put a pie pan on the ground at her feet and a steel washer on the back of her hand, then hold her arm out straight and go for her pistol. Of course the moment she turned her hand, the washer would start to fall and, as it was falling, Sally would begin her draw. She could pull the pistol, fire, and hit her target, before the washer hit the pie pan. And with a rifle she was even deadlier, for she could drill a dime from a fifty yards.
"You aren't mad, are you?" he asked.
Sally chuckled. "Do I get mad at a raindrop for getting my hair wet? Some things are just acts of nature. And when you see someone in trouble, you have just naturally got to come to their rescue. It's who you are."
"You're a good woman, Sally. I don't know how I was ever lucky enough to find you, or why you were foolish enough to marry me. All I know is, you are the best thing that ever happened to me."
"Better be careful, cowboy," Sally said with a seductive smile. "Talk like that will get you. . ."
"Whooeee, am I starved!" a voice suddenly shouted from the front of the house. "And does that ever smell good."
"Damn, Pearlie, if you don't have the worst timing in the world," Smoke said.
"The timing seems pretty good to me," Pearlie said. "I mean, the food's about ready, isn't it?"
Smoke and Sally laughed.
"Yes, it's ready," Sally said. "Wash up, I'll have it on the table shortly.
Pearlie, a young man just past twenty, was the acting foreman of Sugarloaf, having come to work for Smoke after a stint as a hired gun. But the concept of being a hired gun had soured when some of the men Pearlie was working with had raped and killed a young girl. Pearlie had quit that job and thrown in with Smoke, whose ranch had been the target of the man Pearlie was working for at the time. Since then, Pearlie had proven to be one of the most loyal -- and hungry -- people Smoke had ever known.
Cal came into the house right behind Pearlie. Cal was a couple of years younger than Pearlie, and while his appetite wasn't quite as large, his loyalty to Smoke and Sally was just as intense.
Smoke and Sally had no children of their own, but if they had, they would have wanted them to be exactly like the two young men.
"Wish I'd been with you for the little fracas in town," Cal said as they all sat down to eat.
"Why?" Pearlie asked as he spooned a pile of mashed potatoes onto his plate. "What could you have done that Smoke didn't do?"
"Watch," Cal said simply.
The others laughed.
Copyright © 2002 by William W. Johnstone