Vengeance of the Mountain Man, page 1
VENGEANCE OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN
William W. Johnstone
Kensington Publishing Corp.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
THE SAGA OF SHAWN O’BRIEN, TOWN TAMER
Smoke Jensen swung the big double-bladed ax in a high arc, muscles bulging in his arms as the ax split a log neatly in two. The pieces fell onto a pile of wood that reached to Smoke’s knees. Shirtless, his skin bronzed by the bright sunlight of the High Lonesome, he was sweating freely though the air was cool and dry.
“Smoke, you think you oughta leave the heavy cuttin’ to us young’uns?” a boyish voice called from behind him.
He stood up straight, stretching back muscles knotted from the unaccustomed chopping, and looked over his shoulder. Cal and Pearlie were standing next to a buckboard they had been loading with wood.
Smoke shook his head and grinned, thinking of the different ways they had come to work for him. Calvin Woods, going on sixteen years old now, had been just fourteen two years ago when Smoke and Sally had taken him in as a hired hand. It was during the spring branding, and Sally was on her way back from Big Rock to the Sugarloaf. The buckboard was piled high with supplies, because branding hundreds of calves makes for hungry punchers.
As Sally slowed the team to make a bend in the trail, a rail-thin young man stepped from the bushes at the side of the road with a pistol in his hand.
“Hold it right there, Miss.”
Applying the brake with her right foot, Sally slipped her hand under a pile of gingham cloth on the seat. She grasped the handle of her short-barrelled Colt .44 and eared back the hammer, letting the sound of the horses’ hooves and the squealing of the brake pad on the wheel mask the sound. “What can I do for you, young man?” she asked, her voice firm and without fear. She knew she could draw and drill the young highwayman before he could raise his pistol to fire.
“Well, uh, you can throw some of those beans and a cut of that fatback over here, and maybe a portion of that Arbuckles’ coffee, too.”
Sally’s eyebrows raised. “Don’t you want my money?”
The boy frowned and shook his head. “Why, no ma’am. I ain’t no thief. I’m just hungry.”
“And if I don’t give you my food, are you going to shoot me with that big Navy Colt?”
He hesitated a moment, then grinned ruefully. “No ma’am, I guess not.” He twirled the pistol around his finger and slipped it into his belt, turned, and began to walk down the road toward Big Rock.
Sally watched the youngster amble off, noting his tattered shirt, dirty pants with holes in the knees and torn pockets, and boots that looked as if they had been salvaged from a garbage dump. “Young man,” she called, “come back here, please.”
He turned, a smirk on his face, spreading his hands, “Look, lady, you don’t have to worry. I don’t even have any bullets.” With a lightning-fast move he drew the gun from his pants, aimed away from Sally, and pulled the trigger. There was a click but no explosion as the hammer fell on an empty chamber.
Sally smiled. “Oh, I’m not worried.” In a movement every bit as fast as his, she whipped her .44 out and fired, clipping a pinecone from a branch, causing it to fall and bounce off his head.
The boy’s knees buckled and he ducked, saying, “Jiminy Christmas!”
Mimicking him, Sally twirled her Colt and stuck it in the waistband of her britches. “What’s your name, boy?”
The boy blushed and looked down at his feet, “Calvin, ma’am, Calvin Woods.”
She leaned forward, elbows on knees, and stared into the boy’s eyes. “Calvin, no one has to go hungry in this country—not if they’re willing to work.”
He looked up at her through narrowed eyes, as if he found life a little different than she described it.
“If you’re willing to put in an honest day’s work, I’ll see that you get an honest day’s pay, and all the food you can eat.”
Calvin stood a little straighter, shoulders back and head held high. “Ma’am, I’ve got to be straight with you. I ain’t no experienced cowhand. I come from a hardscrabble farm and we only had us one milk cow and a couple of goats and chickens, and lots of dirt that weren’t worth nothing for growin’ things. Ma and Pa and me never had nothin’, but we never begged and we never stooped to takin’ handouts.”
Sally thought, I like this boy. Proud, and not willing to take charity if he can help it. “Calvin, if you’re willing to work, and don’t mind getting your hands dirty and your muscles sore, I’ve got some hands that’ll have you punching beeves like you were born to it in no time at all.”
A smile lit up his face, making him seem even younger than his years. “Even if I don’t have no saddle, nor a horse to put it on?”
She laughed out loud. “Yes. We’ve got plenty of ponies and saddles.” She glanced down at his raggedy boots. “We can probably even round up some boots and spurs that’ll fit you.”
He walked over and jumped in the back of the buckboard. “Ma’am, I don’t know who you are, but you just hired you the hardest workin’ hand you’ve ever seen.”
Back at the Sugarloaf, she sent him in to Cookie and told him to eat his fill. When Smoke and the other punchers rode into the cabin yard at the end of the day, she introduced Calvin around. As Cal was shaking hands with the men, Smoke looked over at her and winked. He knew she could never resist a stray dog or cat, and her heart was as large as the Big Lonesome itself.
Smoke walked up to Cal and cleared his throat. “Son, I hear you drew down on my wife.”
Cal gulped, “Yessir, Mr. Jensen. I did.” He squared his shoulders and looked Smoke in the eye, not flinching though he was obviously frightened of the tall man with the incredibly wide shoulders standing before him.
Smoke smiled and clapped the boy on the back. “Just wanted you to know you stared death in the eye, boy. Not many men are still walking upright who ever pulled a gun on Sally. She’s a better shot than any man I’ve ever seen except me, and sometimes I wonder about me.”
The boy laughed with relief as Smoke turned and called out, “Pearlie, get your lazy butt over here.”
A tall, lanky cowboy ambled over to Smoke and Cal, munching on a biscuit stuffed with roast beef. His face was lined with wrinkles and tanned a dark brown from hours under the sun, but his eyes were sky-blue and twinkled with good-natured humor.
“Yessir, boss,” he mumbled around a mouthful of food.
Smoke put his hand on Pearlie’s shoulder. “Cal, this here chowhound is Pearlie. He eats more’n any two hands, and he’s never been known to do a lick of work he could get out of, but he knows beeves and horses as well as any puncher I have. I want you t
Cal nodded, “Yes sir, Mr. Smoke.”
“Now let me see that iron you have in your pants.”
Cal pulled out the ancient Navy Colt and handed it to Smoke. When Smoke opened the loading gate, the rusted cylinder fell to the ground, causing Pearlie and Smoke to laugh and Cal’s face to flame red. “This is the piece you pulled on Sally?”
The boy nodded, looking at the ground.
Pearlie shook his head. “Cal, you’re one lucky pup. Hell, if’n you’d tried to fire that thing, it’d have blown your hand clean off.”
Smoke inclined his head toward the bunk house. “Pearlie, take Cal over to the tack house and get him fixed up with what he needs, including a gun belt and a Colt that won’t fall apart the first time he pulls it. You might also help pick him out a shavetail to ride. I’ll expect him to start earning his keep tomorrow.”
“Yes sir, Smoke.” Pearlie put his arm around Cal’s shoulders and led him off toward the bunkhouse. “Now the first thing you gotta learn, Cal, is how to get on Cookie’s good side. A puncher rides on his belly, and it ’pears to me that you need some fattenin’ up ’fore you can begin to punch cows.”
Pearlie had come to work for Smoke in as roundabout a way as Cal had. He was hiring his gun out to Tilden Franklin in Fontana when Franklin went crazy and tried to take over Sugarloaf, Smoke and Sally’s spread. After Franklin’s men raped and killed a young girl in the fracas, Pearlie sided with Smoke and the aging gunfighters he had called in to help put an end to Franklin’s reign of terror.1
Pearlie was now honorary foreman of Smoke’s ranch.
* * *
Smoke stopped with his ax in mid-swing and narrowed his dark eyes at Pearlie, who was grinning from ear to ear. “Pearlie, I suspect you’ve been neglecting your teaching chores with young Calvin here,” he drawled.
Pearlie’s grin faded a bit. “How’s that, Smoke? The boy can ride like an Injun, herd beeves like he was born to it, and can damn near shoot as good as me.”
Smoke used a beefy forearm to sleeve sweat off his forehead. “Well, ’pears the boy’s a mite short on respect for his elders.” Dropping the ax and moving almost faster than the eye could follow, Smoke took two steps and grabbed Cal by the pants, lifting him and throwing him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
As Cal kicked and fought, and Pearlie laughed, Smoke loped down the side of the hill toward a mountain stream twisting through the valley. Since it was the second week in September, and snow was already falling on mountain peaks surrounding Sugarloaf, the water was only a few degrees above freezing.
When he stood on the creek bank, Smoke took a deep breath through his nose. “Whew, this boy is ripe, Pearlie. How long since he’s had a bath?”
“No-o-o-o,” wailed Cal, kicking all the more to get free. “I’m sorry, Smoke. I’s jest teasing ’bout you bein’ old and all.”
“Why Smoke,” laughed Pearlie, “I’m almost sure it hadn’t been hardly two weeks since Cal bathed last. He’s not due for at least another week.”
“Wrong,” snorted Smoke. He bent over quickly, straightened, and flipped Cal ass-over-heels into the frigid water. As Cal came up gulping and yelling and flapping his arms, Smoke said, “Preacher always said a man shouldn’t bathe more’n twice a year, otherwise he’d get sick and die.” Smoke put his hands on his hips and smiled at the dripping boy as he scrambled out of the stream, shivering and shaking. “Course, that only applies to mountain men, not whelps like Cal here.” He cocked his head at Pearlie and pointed a finger at Cal. “In the future, I expect him to have a bath at least every week.”
Pearlie looked aghast. “Even in the winter?”
“Especially in the winter. Maybe it’ll teach him to respect his elders. Right, Cal?”
“Ye-ye-ye-yes sir!” Cal answered through chattering teeth. Smoke ambled back uphill where he picked up his shirt and slipped it on. “Now, this old man is tired from all this hard work, so I’m gonna take me a little nap under that pine tree over yonder while you young bucks cut up the rest of those logs.” He looked at storm clouds hanging like dark cotton over the mountain peaks around them. “It’s gonna be an early winter, and that means we’re gonna need lots of wood.”
He handed the ax to Cal. “Here, young un’. Maybe chopping those logs’ll warm you up a bit.” He winked at Pearlie as he walked over to where his horse was ground-hitched. He dipped into his saddlebags and withdrew a handful of donuts, or bearsign as mountain men called them, and chewed as he lay back against the tree. “If you hurry, maybe there’ll be a few of these bearsign left when you get done.” He took a huge mouthful and mumbled loud enough for the two men to hear, “and, then again, maybe there won’t be none left after all.”
Pearlie looked at Cal. “Come on boy, I’ve been waiting all mornin’ for a taste of Sally’s bearsign. Start swingin’ that ax like you mean it.”
* * *
The sound of a gunshot brought Smoke instantly awake and alert. Years in the mountains with the first mountain man, Preacher, had taught Smoke many things. Two of the most important were how to sleep with one ear open, and never to be without one of his big Colt .44s nearby. The gun was in his hand with the hammer drawn back before echoes from the shot had died.
“Sh-h-h Horse,” he whispered, not wanting the big Appaloosa to nicker and give away his position. He buckled his gun belt on, holstered his .44, and slipped a sawed-off ten-gauge American Arms shotgun out of his saddle scabbard. Glancing at the sun, he figured he had been asleep about two hours. Cal and Pearlie were nowhere in sight.
Raising his nose, Smoke sniffed the breeze. The faint smell of gunpowder came from upwind. He turned and began to trot through the dense undergrowth of the mountain woods, making not a sound.
Smoke peered around a pine tree and saw Cal bending over Pearlie, trying to stanch the blood running down his left arm. Four men on horseback were arrayed in front of them, one still holding a smoking pistol in his right hand. “Okay, now I’m not gonna ask you boys again. Where is Smoke Jensen’s spread? We know it’s up in these hills somewheres.”
Cal looked up, and if looks could kill, the men would have been blown out of their saddles. “You didn’t have to shoot him. We’re not even armed.”
“You going to talk, boy? Or do you want the same as your friend there?” The man pointed the gun at Cal, scowling in anger.
Cal squared his shoulders and faced the man full on, fists balled at his sides. “Get off that horse, mister, and I’ll show you who’s a boy!”
The man’s scowl turned to a grin. His lips pulled back from crooked teeth as he cocked the hammer on his weapon. “Say good-bye, banty rooster.”
Smoke stepped into the clearing and fired one barrel of the shotgun, blowing the man’s hand and forearm off up to his elbow, to the accompaniment of a deafening roar.
The men’s horses reared and shied as the big gun boomed, while the riders clawed at their guns. Smoke flipped Cal one of his Colts with his left hand as he drew the other with his right.
Cal cocked, aimed, and fired the .44 almost simultaneously with Smoke. Smoke’s bullet hit one rider in the middle of his chest, blowing a fist-sized hole clear through to his back. Cal’s shot took the top of another man’s head off down to the ears. The remaining gunman dropped his weapon and held his hands high, sweating and cursing as his horse whirled and stomped and crow-hopped in fear.
Smoke nodded at Cal, indicating he should keep the man covered, then he walked over to Pearlie. He bent down and examined the wound, which had stopped bleeding. “You okay, cowboy?”
Pearlie smiled a lopsided grin. “Yeah, boss. No problem.” He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a plug of Bull Durham, biting off a large chunk. “I’ll just wet me some of this here tabaccy and stuff it in the hole. That’ll take care of it until I can get Doc Spalding to look at it.”
Smoke nodded. He remembered Preacher had used tobacco in one form or another to
With Pearlie’s wound seen to, Smoke turned his attention to the man Cal held at bay. He walked over to stand before him. “Get off that horse, scum.”
The man dismounted, casting an eye toward his friend writhing on the ground trying to stop the bleeding from his stump. “Ain’t ya gonna hep Larry? He’s might near bled to death over there.”
Smoke walked over to the moaning man, stood over him, and casually spat in his face as he took his last breath and died, open eyes staring at eternity. With eyes that had turned ice-gray, Smoke turned to look at the only one of the men still alive. “What’s your name, skunk-breath?”
“George. George Hampton.”
“Who are you, and what’re you doin’ here looking for me?”
“Why, uh, we was lookin’ fer Smoke Jensen.”
Smoke sighed, shaking his head. “I am Smoke Jensen, you fool. Now you found me, what do you want?”
Hampton’s eyes shifted rapidly back and forth from Cal to Smoke. “You can’t hardly be Smoke Jensen. You’re too danged young. Jensen’s been out here in the mountains killing people for nigh on ten, fifteen years.”
“I started young.” He drew his .44 and eared the hammer back, the sear notches making a loud click. “And I’m not used to asking questions more than once.”
Hampton held up his hands. “Uh, look Mr. Jensen, it was all Larry’s idea. He said some gunhawk gave him two hundred dollars to come up here and kill you.” He started speaking faster at the look on Smoke’s face. “He said he’d share it with we’uns if we’d back his play.”
Smoke raised his pistol. “What was this gunhawk’s name?”
Hampton shook his head. “I don’t know. Larry never told us.”
Smoke looked at Hampton over the sights of his .44. “You sold your life cheap, mister.”
Cal cried out, “Smoke! No!”
Smoke lowered his gun, sighing. “Cal’s right. I’ve gone this long without ever killing an unarmed man. No need to change now, even you sorely need it.” He stopped talking, a funny expression on his face. He sniffed a couple of times, then looked at Hampton through narrowed eyes. “That smell coming from you, mister?”
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