A Jensen family holiday takes a dark and dangerous turn—on the infamous Donner Pass—in this thrilling epic adventure from the bestselling Johnstones . . .
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas in the High Sierras. But Smoke Jensen and his children, Louis and Denise, won’t let a little snow stop them from heading to Reno for the holidays. There are two ways for them to get there: the long way, going around the Sierra Nevada Mountains, or the short way, going right through them. Smoke decides to take a gamble. They’ll follow the trail that, decades earlier, brought the legendary Donner Party to a gruesome, tragic end . . .
And so the journey begins. The Jensens share a stagecoach with a stranger who’s planning to rob a bank. Smoke wants to stop him, as well as his notorious gang of outlaws. But he’s outgunned and outnumbered. And when a blizzard traps them in the mountains, he’s out of luck too. Like the Donner Party before them, the Jensens will be forced to do whatever it takes to survive. This time, they’re hoping history doesn’t repeat itself. But sometimes, the ghosts of the past just won’t stay buried . . .
|Product dimensions:||4.13(w) x 6.75(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
J. A. Johnstone is a Tennessee-based novelist.
Patrick Lawlor has recorded over three hundred audiobooks in just about every genre. He has been an Audie Award finalist multiple times and has garnered several AudioFile Earphones Awards, a Publishers Weekly Listen-Up Award, and many Library Journal and Kirkus starred audio reviews.
Read an Excerpt
San Francisco, December 1901
"Give me all your money and valuables, mister, and be quick about it!"
"No, I don't believe I will," Smoke Jensen said as he shook his head.
"I mean it!" the would-be robber said, jabbing the gun in his hand toward Smoke.
He had stepped out of an alley a moment earlier and threatened Smoke with the old, small-caliber revolver. Smoke was on his way to an appointment and had taken a shortcut along a smaller street, which at the moment was practically deserted.
A few people were walking along the cobblestones in the next block, but they were unaware of the drama playing out here ... or ignoring it because they didn't want to get involved. It was hard to tell with big-city folks.
The thief wore a threadbare suit over a grimy, collarless shirt. Smoke couldn't see the soles of the man's shoes, but he would have bet they had holes in them. The man's dark hair was lank and tangled, his face gaunt, his eyes hollow.
"Opium?" Smoke asked.
"What?" The man looked and sounded confused as he responded to Smoke's question.
"That's why you've resorted to robbing people on the streets? So you can afford to go down to Chinatown and visit one of the opium dens?"
"That ain't none o' your business. Just gimme your damn money!"
"No." Smoke's voice was flat and hard now, with no compromise in it. "And you'd better not try to shoot that old relic. It'll likely blow up in your hand if you do."
The man turned the gun's barrel away from Smoke to stare at the weapon. When he did that, Smoke's left hand came up and closed around the cylinder. He shoved the barrel skyward, just in case the gun went off.
At the same time, Smoke's right fist crashed into the robber's face and sent him flying backward. Smoke was a medium-sized man, but his shoulders were broad as an ax handle and the muscles that coated his torso were thick enough to make his clothes bulge if the garments weren't made properly.
Smoke had pulled his punch a little. The robber looked to be on the frail side, and Smoke didn't want to hit him too hard and break his neck.
For many years he had been in the habit of killing or at least seriously injuring anybody who pointed a gun at him, but this time it seemed like enough just to disarm the varmint and knock him down. Smoke expected to see him scramble up and flee as quick as his legs would carry him away from here.
The man got up all right, but instead of running away, he charged at Smoke again with a wolfish snarl on his face. His hand darted under his coat and came out clutching a short-bladed but still dangerous knife.
That made things different. Smoke twisted aside as the man slashed at him with the blade. The knife was probably more of a threat than the popgun the man had been waving around.
Smoke tossed the revolver aside, grabbed the man's arm with both hands while the man was off balance, and shoved down on it while bringing his knee up.
The man's forearm snapped with a sharp crack. He screeched in pain and dropped the knife. When Smoke let go of him, he fell to his knees in the street and stayed there, whimpering as he cradled his broken arm against his body.
Smoke picked up the gun, took hold of the would-be robber's coat collar, hauled him to his feet, and marched him stumbling along the cobblestones until he found a police officer.
The blue-uniformed man glared at him and demanded, "Here now! What've you done to this poor fellow?"
"This poor fella, as you call him, tried to rob me," Smoke said. With his free hand, he held out the gun and the knife. "He pulled this gun on me and demanded all my money and valuables, and when I took it away from him he tried to cut me open with the knife. I'd had about enough of it by then." Smoke shoved the would-be robber toward the officer. "His arm's broken, so he'll need some medical attention before you lock him up."
"Wait just a blasted minute! I'm supposed to take your word for all this?"
"It's true, it's true!" the thief wailed. "Lock me up, do anything you want, just keep that crazy cowboy away from me!"
"Sounds like a confession to me," Smoke said. He started to turn away.
"Hold on," the officer said. "At least tell me your name and where to find you, so I can fill out a report."
"The name's Smoke Jensen, and my son and daughter and I are staying at the Palace Hotel."
The policeman's eyebrows rose. The Palace was the city's oldest, most luxurious, and most expensive hotel. The man standing in front of him wasn't dressed fancy — Smoke wore a simple brown tweed suit and a darker brown flat-crowned hat — but if he could afford to stay at the Palace, he had to have plenty of money.
Not only that, but the name was familiar. The officer recalled where he had seen it and blurted out, "I thought Smoke Jensen was just a character in the dime novels!"
"Not hardly," Smoke said. He was well aware of the lurid, yellow-backed yarns that portrayed him variously as an outlaw, a lawman, and the West's fastest and most-feared gunfighter. All of those things had been true at one time or another, but the fevered scribblings of the so-called authors who cranked out those dubious tomes barely scratched the surface.
These days he was a rancher. His Sugarloaf spread back in Colorado was one of the most successful and lucrative west of the Mississippi, not to mention the wealth that had come from the gold claim he had found as a young man. He could well afford to stay at the Palace Hotel. More than likely, he could have booked an entire floor and not missed the money.
Instead he had a suite, with rooms for himself; his son, Louis Arthur; and his daughter, Denise Nicole. He was on his way to meet the twins now, and he didn't want to be delayed.
"Is it all right for me to go on to the hotel?" he asked the policeman.
"Why, sure it is, Mr. Jensen," the officer said. He took hold of the thief's uninjured arm. "I'll tend to this miscreant. I'm sorry you ran into trouble here in our fair city."
"Don't worry about it," Smoke said. "For some reason, I tend to run into trouble just about everywhere I go."
* * *
Smoke had been to one of the banks in San Francisco where he had an account, to deal with some business regarding one of his investments. He had money in several different banks here and in Denver and Chicago, and over the years he had invested in numerous enterprises that had made him even more wealthy.
None of which affected the way he lived his life one bit. He had his ranch, his friends, his brothers and nephews, his children, and most of all his beloved wife, Sally, who at the moment was back on the Sugarloaf. Those were the only things that really mattered to him, not numbers written in some bank ledger.
From the bank, he had headed for the building where he was supposed to meet Louis Arthur and Denise Nicole. He hoped the encounter with the opium addict who had tried to rob him hadn't delayed him too much.
Of course, the twins were perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, especially Denny. She was a beautiful, genteel young woman — when she wanted to be — but as she had proved by strapping on a gun and going after a gang of outlaws who had raided the ranch, she wasn't shy about standing up for herself and her family, either.
When Smoke walked into the office, which smelled vaguely of carbolic acid, he saw Denny waiting in one of the armchairs, but there was no sign of Louis.
"Where's your brother?" he asked.
Denny wore a dark blue traveling outfit with a hat of the same color perched on upswept blond curls. A pair of fawn gloves lay in her lap. She looked at Smoke and said, "He's already in with the doctor. He didn't want me to go with him, of course." She blew out a breath. "I don't know why. It's not like we've ever been that shy around each other."
"Yeah, but you're not kids anymore." Smoke took off his hat and sat down in the chair next to Denny's. "And even though he won't admit it, I think your brother feels like he's letting down the name Jensen by not being as tough as the rest of us. What he doesn't understand is that he's just as tough in other ways. How do you think Luke or Matt or I would have handled it if we'd had a bad heart and couldn't do all the things we've done?"
"I suppose," Denny said.
In truth, if Smoke or his brothers had been physically impaired like Louis, likely none of them would have lived to adulthood. Luke never would have made it through the war, let alone become a bounty hunter, and Matt probably wouldn't have survived the outlaw attack that had left his birth family dead. Smoke never would have headed west with his father after the war to clash with Indians and badmen and meet the old mountain man called Preacher who had taught him everything he knew about handling a gun.
And he never would have met and fallen in love with the beautiful young schoolteacher Sally Reynolds, so Denise Nicole and Louis Arthur wouldn't even be here.
Smoke was musing on those weighty thoughts when a door opened and a thick-bodied man with a beard stepped out. Pince-nez perched on his nose. He looked a little like President Theodore Roosevelt, who had taken office a few months earlier — and whom Smoke had met when he was a Montana rancher. Teddy was a good man for an easterner.
"Mr. Jensen?" the bearded man said.
Smoke got to his feet. "That's right."
"I am Dr. Hugo Katzendorf. If you would come back to my office, please."
Dr. Katzendorf had only a faint accent to indicate his Prussian origins. He was a heart specialist, reputedly one of the best in the country.
Years earlier, when Louis was a small child and Sally's parents had taken him to Europe to seek the finest medical attention for him, Katzendorf was one of the doctors who had seen him.
Now, having immigrated to America and established a practice in San Francisco, Katzendorf had written to Louis and asked for the chance to examine him again after almost two decades, to compare his condition now to what it had been back then. Such knowledge might prove vital to physicians who specialized in treating heart problems.
Denny started to get up, but Smoke motioned her back into her chair. She glared at him. Denny hated being left out of anything, from a party to a fight. But she sighed and stayed where she was.
When Smoke and Katzendorf walked into the physician's office, they found Louis there, buttoning up his shirt after the examination. He had the same fair hair and slender build as his sister. He smiled and said, "Tell my father the good news, Doctor."
"I'm always ready to hear good news," Smoke said.
Katzendorf hooked his thumbs in his vest over his ample belly and frowned.
"Your son has a rather dry sense of humor, Mr. Jensen. The news is not ... good." He held up a pudgy hand to forestall any response from Smoke and went on, "But neither is it entirely bad. Louis's heart is indeed stronger than it was when he was a child. But I fear it is also enlarged, and the valves in it are weak. He will always be in danger of it failing."
Louis laughed and said, "The good doctor doesn't understand. I fully expected to have dropped dead before now. I'm living on borrowed time, so I consider every day a blessing."
Smoke's hand tightened on the hat he held. Even though he had known it was too much to expect, he had hoped Katzendorf would declare that Louis was cured. The youngster's color was so much better than it had been, and he seemed stronger all the time.
From what Katzendorf had said, though, it sounded like there was only so much improvement that could ever take place.
"What's it look like over the long run, Doc?" Smoke asked.
Katzendorf spread thick fingers.
"Who can say? My experience and expertise tells me that the young man's life expectancy will be shortened, but by how much? That is impossible to predict. If he takes good care of himself, leads a healthy life, and avoids undue exertion and excitement, he may live another twenty to thirty years."
"See?" Louis grinned. "Not that bad."
Smoke was in his early fifties now. The doctor was saying he didn't think Louis would make it to that age. That angered Smoke, but some enemies couldn't be fought with fists or guns, or even outwitted. A bad ticker was one of them.
Louis went on, "This leaves me more convinced than ever that my future lies in the law. I'm thinking that next year I may try to attend Harvard."
"Your mother won't like you leaving home again," Smoke cautioned.
"Well, Denny will still be there on the ranch. If you're not careful, Father, she'll take over running the Sugarloaf from you. She'll be giving the orders before you know it."
"That'll be the day," Smoke said, but deep down, the prospect didn't displease him that much. One of these days, Denny might well be running the ranch, and Louis would be handling its business affairs.
When that happened, he could just sit back in a rocking chair and enjoy his old age. Yeah, Smoke Jensen in a rocking chair ...
Nope, he thought. He just couldn't see it.CHAPTER 2
Two men rode down the main street of the bustling settlement, which served as the supply center for the mines that lay to the northwest and the ranches spreading across the range southeast of there.
Having both in such close proximity meant that clashes between the pick- and-shovel men and the cowboys were inevitable, but it also ensured that Staghorn was a busy, profitable place, with a lot of cash flowing into the merchants' coffers.
Because of that, the First Bank of Staghorn — which was the only bank in Staghorn, actually — usually had a decent amount of money in its safe.
The two strangers on horseback rode all the way from one end of Main Street to the other. Then, satisfied with what they had seen, they turned their horses and moved back along the street at a leisurely pace until they reached the hitch rail in front of the hardware store next to the bank. They swung down from their saddles and looped the reins around the rail, where three more horses were tied at the moment.
One of the men was a tall, rawboned hombre with a prominent nose and Adam's apple and straw-colored hair sticking out from under a battered old hat. He looked around the town again and commented quietly, "I figured we might see some o' them new-fangled horseless carriages here, but it looks like they ain't made it this far yet."
The other man grunted and said, "Good. From what I hear, they stink up the air something fierce."
He was shorter and stockier than his companion, with a face like a bulldog. His name was Warren Hopgood. The rawboned man was Deke Mahoney.
They had come here to rob the First Bank of Staghorn.
Mahoney glanced at a bench on the boardwalk in front of the hardware store. A man sat there reading a newspaper, or at least pretending to read a newspaper. He gave Mahoney an almost unnoticeable nod. That meant there were no lawmen or anybody else who appeared too threatening in the bank. Magnus Stevenson was the gang's lookout and horse holder, and he was good at his job.
A glance across the street told Mahoney that Otis Harmon was in position as well, leaning casually against one of the posts supporting the awning over the boardwalk. Harmon was the fastest gun in the bunch and the coldest nerved, as well. He wouldn't hesitate to shoot down anyone who caused a problem — man, woman, or child.
The bank sat on a corner, and on the other side of the cross street, the fifth member of the gang sat on the steps leading up to the boardwalk. Dark curly hair spilled out from under his thumbed-back hat, and he wore a friendly grin as he whittled on a piece of wood with a Bowie knife. Jim Bob Mitchell was an expert with the knife, and not just when it came to whittling.
Satisfied that everybody was in place, Mahoney nodded to Hopgood and led the way into the bank.
Two tellers stood behind a windowed counter helping customers. One teller had two customers in line, the other just one. Three more customers stood at a raised table filling out deposit or withdrawal slips.
A fat man in a suit sat behind a desk to one side, looking through some papers. Another desk was empty. The safe stood behind the desks. Its door was closed.
Mahoney's experienced gaze took in all of that in one quick scan around the room. He noted that four of the customers were men and the other two were women but didn't really pay attention to any details beyond that.
So, nine people in the bank and none of them looked particularly dangerous. Mahoney nodded to himself, satisfied that he and Hopgood could proceed.
He hauled the Colt from the holster on his right hip and clicked back the hammer. The ominous, metallic sound made silence drop like a curtain.
"Everybody stand still," Mahoney ordered in a loud, clear voice. He didn't shout. Yelling sometimes spooked folks into doing something stupid. "We ain't here to hurt anybody. We just want the money."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A High Sierra Christmas"
Copyright © 2018 J.A. Johnstone.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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