The only good outlaw is a dead outlaw . . .
Guarding a railroad that’s working its way across a thousand miles of North America and through the Canadian Rockies ain’t easy—especially when an army of cross-border outlaws starts wreaking havoc on the tracks. Smoke Jensen knows there’s only one way to run this railroad: straight into one hell of a fight . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
About the Author
Being the all-around assistant, typist, researcher, and fact checker to one of the most popular western authors of all time, J.A. Johnstone learned from the master, Uncle William W. Johnstone.
He began tutoring J.A. at an early age. After-school hours were often spent retyping manuscripts or researching his massive American Western History library as well as the more modern wars and conflicts. J.A. worked hard—and learned.
“Every day with Bill was an adventure story in itself. Bill taught me all he could about the art of storytelling. ‘Keep the historical facts accurate,’ he would say. ‘Remember the readers, and as your grandfather once told me, I am telling you now: be the best J.A. Johnstone you can be.’”
Read an Excerpt
Spring had come early to the Sugarloaf this year, and Smoke Jensen's hired hands were well on their way to getting the spring branding and separating of the winter calves from their mothers done a month earlier than usual. It had been a mild winter, and the snow accumulation on the lower slopes of the Rocky Mountains was already beginning to melt and disappear under the rays of the spring sun.
Smoke sat on the top rail of the corral, a half-smoked cigar in his mouth, and watched as Pearlie, his ranch foreman, cussed and hollered at the hired hands to get the last of the calves in the corral branded so they could stop for lunch. The wiry young man was working like a dervish, moving from place to place within the corral, kicking and shoving the branded calves into the chute that would lead them out to pasture even before the smoke was cleared from their fresh brands.
Smoke smiled around his cheroot as he glanced upward at the morning sun as it shone through mild cloud cover. He figured it was only about ten-thirty in the morning, and Pearlie was already yelling about lunch. That figured, since Pearlie rarely let more than a few hours pass without putting something or other in his mouth. He was, as Cal, his young protégé, called him, a real food hog, with Cal usually putting heavy emphasis on the word "hog."
Hearing light footsteps behind him, Smoke turned and saw his beautiful wife, Sally, approaching the corral with a metal pot of fresh coffee in one hand and a platter of her well-appreciated doughnuts, called bear sign, in the other. Her long, dark hair was hanging down to caress her shoulders, just the way he liked it, and her hazel eyes were bright and clear and full of life, as usual.
"Hi, darlin'," Smoke drawled, jumping down off the rail. "What's this?" he asked as he took the platter of bear sign from her hands.
She smiled, and it was if the clouds parted and the sun shone brighter to Smoke. "I could hear Pearlie shouting about lunch all the way in the cabin, so I thought a short break for some coffee and doughnuts might help him make it until noon when I'll serve the boys lunch."
Pearlie, who was busy lying across a calf's neck so Cal could apply the branding iron, hadn't seen Sally's approach.
Smoke whistled through his lips and held up the platter for the men in the corral to see. "Hey, we got coffee and bear sign, boys," he shouted.
Pearlie's head whipped around at the words "bear sign," and he jumped up off the calf and literally ran toward the corral gate. As soon as he was up and off the calf, it kicked out with both hind legs and scrambled to its feet, knocking Cal on his ass and sending the branding iron flying.
Pearlie didn't take time to undo the latch on the gate, but just jumped up on top and leapt on over. He didn't intend for anyone else to get first pick of the doughnuts. When Pearlie arrived next to Smoke and Sally, skidding to a stop in the mud that was a result of the spring rains earlier in the week, he ignored the coffee and grabbed a double handful of the bear sign, while simultaneously tipping his hat at Sally.
"Mornin,' Miss Sally," he said just before he popped an entire doughnut in his mouth and began to chew.
"Good morning, Pearlie," she said with a laugh, shaking her head at the way he was making the food disappear.
Cal and three other hands walked up at a much slower pace, showing a good deal more restraint than Pearlie had. When Cal got close enough, he reared back and kicked Pearlie in the seat of his pants with the side of his boot.
"Gosh darn it, Pearlie," he groused, "that calf dang near took my leg off!"
Pearlie juggled the bear sign in his hands to keep from spilling them onto the ground when Cal's kick made him jump. "Dagnabbit, Cal, you almost made me drop these here bear sign!" he shouted, holding the doughnuts in one hand while he rubbed his posterior with his free hand.
Cal pointed at the platter heaped full of doughnuts. "Well, what was your hurry, Pearlie? Miss Sally made plenty enough bear sign for all of us."
Pearlie shrugged. "I just wanted to git'em whilst they was hot, Cal. You know they taste better that way," he answered, looking not at all ashamed of his actions.
"Horsesh — uh, stuff!" Cal rejoined, glancing at Sally as he reached over and took a couple of the bear sign for himself. "You just wanted to make sure you got more'n everbody else, that's why you was in such a hurry."
"There's plenty for everyone," Sally said, stepping between the men. "And I made a fresh pot of coffee to go along with the bear sign."
When Pearlie opened his mouth to ask a question, Sally interrupted him. She pulled out a small brown sack containing sugar and held it up. "And yes, I did bring you some sugar for your coffee, Pearlie."
Cal shook his head as he poured himself a cup of the steaming brew. "I swear, Miss Sally," he said, smiling slightly, "you done spoiled that man rotten."
"What?" Pearlie asked as he dumped the entire packet of sugar in his coffee without asking anyone else if they wanted any. "Just 'cause I like a little sugar in my coffee, you think I'm spoiled?"
Cal smirked. "You mean a little coffee in your sugar, don't you?" he asked. "And what's next, Pearlie? Pretty soon you're gonna be putting cow's milk in it like the ladies in town all do."
Smoke laughed and put his arm around Sally. "You boys finish up your coffee and get back to work. I'm not paying you to sit around on your backsides jawing at each other all day," he said as he walked Sally back toward their cabin.
"Thank you kindly for the food and coffee, Miss Sally," called Pete, one of the hands.
"Yes, ma'am," Pearlie mumbled through a mouthful of doughnut, "thanks."
Cal took off his hat and slapped Pearlie in the back of his head with it. "Don't talk with your mouth full, Pearlie. Didn't your momma never teach you no manners?"
"Hell," Pete said laughing, "if'n Pearlie didn't talk with his mouth full, he'd dang near never get to say nothin'."
Smoke liked the way his men had an easy camaraderie on the job. Out in the High Lonesome, he knew that on any given day their lives might depend on their coworkers, and he reasoned the better friends they were, the less chance there was of anyone getting hurt or killed in the dangerous business of ranching out on the frontier.
He was especially fond of Pearlie and his young sidekick, Cal. They'd been with him for several years now, and after standing next to them in some pretty hairy situations, he knew he couldn't ask for any better men to be by his side or to guard his back. In the parlance of the West, they would both do to ride the river with.
Pearlie had come to work for Smoke over five years before, after he'd found he couldn't stomach a man he'd hired his guns to in a range war against Smoke Jensen. Pearlie had gone to the man, named Tilden Franklin, after Franklin had raped a young woman, and told him he was through. Franklin was enraged, and he had his other gunnies beat Pearlie almost to death, finally shooting him and leaving him for dead. Wounded and near death, Pearlie had made his way to the Sugarloaf to warn Smoke about Franklin, and he'd been a fixture on the ranch ever since.
Calvin Woods, a year or two later, was just fourteen years old when he found himself in Colorado, broke and starving after leaving his parents' hardscrabble farm to try and make a living on his own. Sally had been on her way back to the Sugarloaf with a buckboard full of supplies during the spring branding, and Cal, rail-thin from not eating anything but wild berries for the past week, had stepped from the bushes at the corner of the trail with a pistol in his hand.
"Hold it right there, miss," he'd called.
Sally could see right away the boy was half-starved and could hardly hold the old pistol up, he was so weak.
She slipped her hand under a pile of gingham cloth on the seat, grasping the handle of her short-barreled Colt .44, and eased back the hammer, just in case.
"What can I do for you, young man?" she asked, no fear in her voice.
"Well, uh, you can throw some of those beans and a cut of that fatback over here, and maybe a portion of that Arbuckle's coffee too."
"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?" Sally asked, trying hard not to smile.
Cal hesitated for a moment, and then he grinned ruefully. "No, ma'am, I guess not." He twirled the pistol around his finger and he slipped it into his belt, and then he turned and began to walk down the road toward Big Rock.
Sally, feeling sorry for the boy instead of angry, called out to him and offered him a job on the Sugar-loaf, which he eagerly accepted. When they got back to the ranch, Pearlie took the boy under his wing, even though he was just a couple of years older than Cal. They'd been best friends ever since.
Both Smoke and Sally thought of Pearlie and Cal as more members of their family than hired workers, and the boys, who would gladly lay down their lives for either of them, reciprocated the feelings.
As Smoke and Sally approached their house, Smoke heard the sounds of hoofbeats in the distance, and they were coming closer at a rapid rate, as if the rider was in a hell of a hurry.
Smoke's hand went to the Colt in his holster. Visitors in the High Lonesome weren't always friendly, and Smoke had more than his fair share of enemies still walking around.
"Step into the cabin, Sally," he said as he turned and looked down the road leading to their house, "until I see who this is."
Sally, who'd learned never to question Smoke's instincts, ducked into the cabin and took a Henry repeating rifle off the rack next to the door.
She held the gun expertly and waited to see if she would need to use it to back Smoke's play.
After a minute or two, she saw Smoke's hand come away from his pistol and a smile break out on his face as he called out, "Hey, Monte, come on in and have some coffee."
She hung the rifle back up on the rack and went into the kitchen to get Monte Carson, sheriff of Big Rock, a cup of coffee and some bear sign.
By the time Sally came out onto the porch, Monte and Smoke were sitting on chairs and Monte was tamping tobacco in the pipe, which was rarely out of his mouth.
Monte jumped to his feet and tipped his hat. "Howdy, Miss Sally."
"Hello, Monte," she responded, smiling and waving him back to his seat as she handed him a mug of coffee and put the plate of bear sign down on a table between him and Smoke.
Smoke took the other mug, and watched as Monte grabbed a doughnut and swallowed it in two bites. Cowboys throughout the valley around Big Rock prized Sally's bear sign.
"How is Mary?" Sally asked, speaking of Monte's wife. "We've been so busy with the spring branding, I haven't had a chance to visit her in a while."
"She'd doin' just fine, Sally," Monte said. "Her rheumatiz is botherin' her a bit, but now that warm weather's on the way, it'll soon get better."
"Winter up here does have away of getting into our bones, especially as we all get older," Sally said, dusting her hands off on the apron tied around her waist.
Monte's face sobered and he pulled an envelope out of his vest pocket. "Well, I guess I might as well get to the reason I came out here. Jackson over at the telegraph office gave me this telegram for you and said I needed to get it out here right away."
"Bad news?" Smoke asked.
Monte gave a half smile. "You know ol' Jack, Smoke. He wouldn't say, but I 'spect it is or he wouldn't have been in such an all-fired hurry for me to bring it to you."
Sally took the envelope and opened it. As she read it, Smoke saw her face pale and her eyes fill with tears.
He got immediately to his feet and stood by her side, putting his arm around her waist, waiting for her to tell him what it said.
After a moment, she folded the letter and placed it in her apron pocket. She looked up at him, her face sad. "It's my father," she said quietly. "My mother says he's real sick. The doctor in Boston thinks it might be his heart."
Smoke hugged her. He knew how close Sally was to her parents, and it'd been over two years since she'd been back to see them. He looked over her shoulder at Monte. "Would you make arrangements for us to take the next train out heading east, Monte? We'll get packed and be in town first thing in the morning."
"Sure, Smoke," he answered, and he looked at Sally, "I'm real sorry to hear about your paw, Sally."
"Just a minute, Monte," Sally said. She turned to Smoke. "You don't have to come with me, Smoke."
When he started to protest, she held up her hand. "No, I know how much you hate to go back East, especially when there's still a lot of work to do around the ranch. I'll just go out there by myself and see what the situation is. By the time you're through with the branding and such, I'll know how my father is and I'll let you know then if you need to come."
Smoke hated to think of Sally making such a long trip by herself, but she was right. He hated the big cities of the East, and could hardly stand to visit for very long. The crowded streets and the dudes with their fine clothes and insincere manners grated on his nerves worse than a burr in his boots.
When Sally saw the indecision on his face, she smiled gently. "I'll be all right, dear. After all, I've made the trip many times before."
Finally Smoke nodded, though it was clear he wasn't happy with the idea of her traveling alone. "All right, if you say so."
* * *
Sally prepared a large lunch of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and several loaves of fresh bread. She had a lot of hungry cowboys to feed before she could start her packing, and she cooked extra portions at lunch so she wouldn't have to cook later for supper.
Even though Smoke was among the richest ranchers in the area and they could easily afford a full-time cook, Sally enjoyed cooking for the men. She'd been a teacher in the local school, and she wouldn't have known what to do with her time if she couldn't make herself useful in this way. At times, even though Smoke hired a cook for trail drives, Sally would ride along and help him prepare the meals from the chuck wagon. When Smoke asked her why, she said it helped keep her cooking skills sharp — and the men all agreed she was right, for she was widely known as the best cook in the county.
After lunch, she went into the bedroom to get her things together, while Smoke went out to the corral to help with the branding.
Some six hours later, Smoke entered the cabin and found their wooden bathtub set up in the spare bedroom, and it was full of steaming hot water.
"What's this?" he said with a grin. "I'm a mountain man — you know it's not time for my annual bath yet."
Sally appeared from their bedroom, wearing a frilly pink nightgown, a half smile on her face. "Smoke Jensen, I'm leaving in the morning and I won't see you for I don't know how long. If you think I'm going to spend my last night with you with you all covered with dirt and sweat, well, then, you've got another think coming!"
Smoke laughed and began to quickly shed his buckskins. "Well, dear, when you put it that way ..."CHAPTER 2
Two weeks later, on the day Sally was supposed to wire him and let him know what was going on with her father, Smoke called Cal and Pearlie to the cabin just after breakfast. They'd been riding fence all week, fixing up the areas where the winter storms had torn them down. The branding and separating of the calves from their mothers had been done, and there was nothing much else to do around the ranch. They were all just about bored to death.
When they entered the cabin, Smoke looked up from his coffee. "I've got to go into Big Rock this morning to pick up Sally's telegraph, and I thought you boys might like to go along."
"Boy, Smoke," Pearlie said with feeling, "you got that right! I'm so tired of Buttermilk's cookin', I'm 'bout ready to go on a diet."
Buttermilk Wheeler was a local cook that Sally had insisted Smoke hire to cook for them while she was away. "Otherwise," she'd said with a twinkle in her eyes, "I'll come back to find you all dead of food poisoning."
Cal laughed at Pearlie's claim. "That'll be the day when you pass up food of any kind, Pearlie."
"Well, it's true," Pearlie argued, looking at Smoke with a pained expression on his face. "Now I know why they call his biscuits 'sinkers,' and the coffee ... well, let's just say it tastes like ol' Buttermilk flavors it with axle grease."
Buttermilk, who was standing over at the stove kneading biscuit dough, turned his head, looking hurt. "I'll remember that, friend, next time you hold out your cup for your third helping."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Quest of the Mountain Man"
Copyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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