Rage of the Mountain Man
Smoke Jensen is the most powerful man on the Sugarloaf frontier—and he's all that stands between a greedy group of Eastern slickers and their schemes for a criminal empire in the Rockies. When Smoke heads back to Boston with his wife, it gives his enemies the opening they'd been waiting for: to kill the mountain man and take over the West.
But even on the unfamiliar turf of back alleys and teeming docks, Smoke is more than most men can handle...until his wife is kidnapped. Now Smoke is in a fury and in this fight all the way from Boston back to Dodge City and up to Yellowstone, where a brutal showdown with a gang of hired guns awaits—and where, in a blazing hail of bullets and blood, the legend of the big man is about to grow even bigger . . .
Betrayal of the Mountain Man
They called him fastest gun alive, but Smoke Jensen is determined to stay on the right side of the law. That is, until he's jumped by six low-life robbers who steal his shirt—and his identity. Smoke's tried for robbery and murder, and sentenced to hang in the morning. Someone's out to frame the Mountain Man . . . someone who's made a big mistake.
Barely managing to escape on the morning of his hanging, Smoke's going after the desperados who've set him up. The gang thinks they have nothing to fear; they've already divided up the loot and gone their separate ways. But Smoke's going to hunt them down one by one. Because nobody frames the Mountain Man. Nobody who plans on staying alive, that is . . .
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RAGE OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN
By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSlanting sunbeams cast a pink glow on the higher snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains which surrounded the lush valley that housed Sugarloaf, the ranch of Smoke Jensen. Smoke and his wife, Sally, had lived here most of their adult lives. They shared a fondness for the quiet, serenity, and wealth of resources of the fruitful basin.
At least, most of the time Smoke loved it. He had a terrible case of cabin fever. It had been a long, hard winter in the High Lonesome. Eight feet of snow, on the level, still covered a large portion of the Sugarloaf. Yet spring had loudly announced its imminent arrival in the clear, strident call of male cardinals and the noisy splash of invigorated trout in the clear stream that ran near the stout, squarely built log house. Smoke had taken to muttering to himself of late about the long, gray months of enforced inactivity. He did so now as he slipped the cinch strap to free his handsome roan stallion from the saddle.
"Okay, Dandy," Smoke said softly to the animal. "The nosebag comes next. One coffee box of oats."
A single large brown eye turned to examine the tall, broad-chested man with the thick mane of black hair and steely gray eyes. To Smoke's way of thinking, it held an accusing glint. Only one box of oats? it seemed to plead. Smoke's smooth, square jaw shifted right-left-right and a small, amused smile split his sun-browned, weather-toughened face. A sudden patter of small boots drew his attention to the large, open barn door.
Bobby Harris appeared a moment later. Pug nose in active motion over a scattering of freckles, mop of straw-colored hair sprouting wildly on a head still damp from the first spring sweat, the slender boy paused with hands held out to illustrate his exciting news.
"Mr. Smoke. Linc let me brand two of the new calves this afternoon."
"Well, now," Smoke responded, gently teasing the orphaned boy he and Sally had taken in. "It looks like you're about ready to draw a grown hand's pay."
"Aw, I ain't that big yet."
"Aren't," Smoke corrected.
"Yeah. I aren't that big yet." Bobby wrinkled his button nose. "That sounds funny."
"That's because it isn't proper speech. 'I am not that big yet' is what you should say. Don't they teach you anything in the school in Big Rock?"
Bobby looked sheepish. "They try. But it just goes over my head. I don't understand what they're talking about."
"Then ask questions, boy," Smoke raised his voice to say, putting a little heat in it. "You'll never learn if you don't have it made clear to you."
"Who needs all that educatin' stuff to work the Sugarloaf?" Bobby countered in childish defiance.
"You do. And you'll not be on the Sugarloaf all your life. There's a freight wagon full of opportunities outside this basin. Sally and I came here to find peace, and we did. But a young man needs his adventures before he turns to a more ordered way of life. Take my word for it."
"Yes, sir," Bobby chirped. "Like that time Sheriff Carson was tellin' me about when you shot up all those folks around Bury, Idaho?" Impish delight danced in the boy's big cobalt eyes.
Smoke Jensen did not have to fake the flash of irritation that warmed his insides. "What the hell is Monte doing, telling tales like that to a kid?" he snapped. "Well, no mind. The harm, if any, has already been done. I suppose you have a head full of wild tales about Smoke Jensen and old Preacher?"
Bobby looked solemn and nodded. "Yessir. But they just make me feel proud living here, being around you." He produced his most engaging smile.
Smoke fought back the agitation borne of the long days of confinement during blizzards and in their aftermath. With effort he produced a more lighthearted mood. "Well, time for you to take a dip in the horse trough to float off some of today's dust, then you had best change clothes. You're eating at the main house tonight."
Bobby brightened. "Am I? That's swell. Did Miz Sally bake any pies today?"
Smoke smiled warmly. This was one place he and the boy shared common ground. They dearly loved his wife's pies. "Yep. Apricot, I think. Made it from some of those we dried last summer."
Bobby's eleven-year-old eyes went big and round. "I love apricot."
"Seems to me you love anything, so long as it is spelled p-i-e. Now, get along with you and wash up."
Dinner had gone well. Linc Patterson, his vivacious wife, Cynthia, and their two young children had attended. Much to the delight of Bobby Harris and the Patterson youngsters, Sally Jensen had prepared two pies. Smoke was secretly pleased, too. There was nothing he enjoyed more than Sally's pies and biscuits-crusty and brown on the outside, light, flaky, and soft inside-or just about anything she cooked, for that matter.
Long ago, when he was not much older than Bobby, Smoke had learned to cook from old Preacher, the legendary mountain man who had taken Smoke in and raised him to manhood. Preacher's culinary accomplishments ran to the school of, "If it's small enough to put in the pot, stew it. If it's too big, or red meat, roast or broil it." Smoke's kitchen skills developed accordingly. To this day, he retained that first burst of gratitude and delight he'd experienced when he'd discovered that not only was Sally lovely to look at and saucy in temperament, but also a marvelous cook.
Not that Smoke Jensen doted on food like some eastern gourmand. Preacher had seen to the practicality of Smoke's education. He had become a devotee of moderation. That fact notwithstanding, or perhaps because of it, Smoke believed that when the best could be had, make the most of it. Now, as he lowered the wick in the last lamp in their living room, his mind turned to means to escape the tedium the long winter had engendered.
It centered, as most of Smoke Jensen's thinking did, on the things of nature. Perhaps a two- or three-day fishing expedition far up the valley, beyond the area developed for the ranch. Or a jaunt down to Denver. Just him and Sally, away and alone for a visit to the theater, visiting the livestock exchange and his old friend Silas Greene. Such things would have to wait, Smoke acknowledged, as he blew out the flickering yellow flame, until the calves and new foals had all been branded.
He had no way to know that Sally envisioned something entirely different for them. Despite the difficulty of traversing the miles to Big Rock, Sally had maintained relatively regular communications with her family back in Keene, New Hampshire. High on her list of concerns was the state of her mother's health. Her father's last letter had brought the welcome news of considerable improvement. It had also contained intelligence regarding the top priority for Sally Jensen.
She would have to broach the subject with Smoke at the earliest opportunity, in order to have any hope of success. That would come over breakfast the next morning, she decided, as she arranged herself in a suitably suggestive posture on the large, comfortable bed. Wavering yellow light announced the approach of her husband.
Smoke Jensen entered the room and peered beyond the saffron ball of candlelight. His lighthearted smile bloomed into a wide grin of anticipation when he saw his wife's position. "I'll undress and put out the light," he offered.
"No, leave it burning," Sally responded breathily. "I like to watch you make love to me."
Smoke Jensen lay beside his Sally in a deep, restorative slumber. His keen senses were finely honed by Preacher's constant advice and example, and he may well have noted the series of five soft crumps in the distance. A moment later, he definitely heard the sharp crack as a huge wall of snow and ice broke away from the mountain above their stout log house.
Smoke sat upright, fully alert, by the time the rumble of the avalanche reached his ears. Gently he shook Sally to rouse her. "Something's wrong," he whispered calmly.
"Wha-what?" Sally asked groggily.
By then, Smoke had analyzed the sounds that had reached him. "Something's happened to break off the snow wall above here. There's an avalanche. Put on shoes, wrap up in warm clothing. We have to get away from the house."
Alarmed, Sally came upright, one hand going to her long, golden locks in an unconscious feminine gesture. "Will-will it hit the house?"
"We can't take that chance," Smoke declared from his side of the bed, where he worked to pull on his trousers.
His boots came next, while Sally rushed to a large, old armoire to find a robe and a heavy coat. From outside, the faint thunder of cascading snow grew steadily louder. Smoke slid into a sheepskin coat and helped Sally into hers. They made their way to the front door.
Outside, the stars still shone from above. Their glow turned the Colorado countryside to silver. Slowly, small puffs and swirls of wind-borne white began to obscure the sky. Smoke took Sally by one arm and directed her away at a right angle to the avalanche. Billowing ice crystals and fairy-lace snowflakes pulled a black cloud over the heavens.
The sound of the descending snow made it impossible to hear words shouted next to one's ear.
Sally stumbled and Smoke gripped hard to steady her. He also chanced a quick glance to his left, toward the descending wall of snow. It rolled and tumbled, while great gouts shot into the air. The leading edge crashed into a sturdy old pine at the uphill end of a large boulder a hundred yards behind the house. Like the parting of the Red Sea, the tumbling snow and ice cleaved in twain around the huge stone obstruction.
It flowed unceasingly to either side, spread wider, and rushed toward the barns and bunkhouse to the right of the house. It sent small, rounded clumps skittering across the ground toward Smoke and Sally on the left. With a seething hiss, the avalanche passed some ten feet behind the Jensens. Slowly the ominous rumble stilled, saved only in the echoes from across the basin.
An even more alarming silence blanketed the Sugarloaf. Small streamers of still mobile snow made the sound of escaping steam as they poured on down over the white rubble that now covered the bunkhouse. Sally's chest heaved in great gasps. Smoke stood for a stunned moment before the realization of what he saw registered.
Faintly, as though from a mile's distance, he heard the thin, broken cries from the direction of the inundated bunkhouse. The sky lightened as the haze of particles thinned. Sally turned a stricken face toward Smoke.
"What happened to the bunkhouse? Where is it?" Smoke waved a hand in the proper direction. "It's ... under there."
"The men-did they get out?" Sally asked, overcome with worry.
"I don't know. I don't think so." Then Smoke amended his statement when he saw movement within the snow and the dark silhouettes of heads and the upper torsos of men emerging from the deep bank of snow. "Wait a minute, some of them made it out."
"We have to do something," Sally urged. By some unusual quirk, their house had been spared, yet the hands remained in terrible danger.
Smoke nodded, thinking, devising a plan. "Go to the small toolshed. Bring shovels. I'm going to put these men to scooping out an escape route for the others."
One of the ranch hands stumbled toward Smoke and Sally. Gasping, he stopped before his employer and gestured behind him at the deep pile. "Thank God, there ain't many winders in that place. That snow slide knocked the building plumb off its foundation. If the walls had been weakened by a lot of winders, we'd all be goners."
"How are the men?" Smoke asked anxiously.
"All right, considering. There's bumps and bruises, a couple broken arms, one broken leg, but the whole crew rode it out. Believe me, it was worse 'n the hurricane deck of a mustang bronc. I cracked my head and wound up wedged under little Bobby's bunk."
Anxiety clutched at Sally Jensen. "What about the boy? Is he one of the hurt?"
"No, ma'am, just a few scrapes. He ought to be along in a minute or two. The boys are handin' out the ones hurt bad first."
Another rumble sounded from above and everyone froze, expressions showing their alarm. Smoke Jensen began automatically to tick off the seconds. Another crackling groan from the deteriorating snow, longer and louder. Only seven seconds. It could let go at any time. He turned to Sally, kept his voice calm.
"Go for those shovels. Only stay in the shed. It's good and strong. I'll send men to get the tools." Without waiting for a reply, he set off running toward the ruined bunkhouse.
"What about the livestock that was in the corral ... that was over there?" the young wrangler ended wonderingly, eyes fixed on a ripple-surfaced bed of snow. Not even a fence post showed above it.
"We'll put men on it as fast as possible," Smoke Jensen directed.
Half a dozen men stood in dazed dejection outside the short tunnel through the rubble of the avalanche. Some shivered, and one stockman cradled a limp broken arm. Another head wormed up out of the icy tomb.
"Yer boy, Bobby, is comin' up next, Mr. Jensen," the next wrangler out of the hole announced.
"Good. Try to work faster here, and I want you boys to get started digging out the horses in that corral," Smoke commanded. "Go to the tool shed for shovels. Be quick about it, but take it easy. Some of them may be down on all fours."
With a strident crack and prolonged screech, another section of the snow overhang gave way and raced breathlessly down on the ranch headquarters. The men scattered-all except Smoke Jensen, who rushed to the opening in the mound to try to retrieve Bobby Harris.
To Smoke Jensen's perception, the decaying shelf of snow-pack remained in its place on the mountainside one second, and the next it smacked him in the back and drove him down the short tunnel into the engulfed bunkhouse. A cloud of crystals hung in the air as the rumble of the secondary avalanche died out. Smoke worked his hands under his chest and levered his torso upward. He shed snow in a shower. He found himself face-to-face with an anxious Bobby Harris.
"Smoke, are you all right?" the small lad asked.
"I'm fine. How about you?"
"We got bounced around some." Bobby indicated the half dozen ranch hands still inside.
"Likely we'll get some more if we don't dig our way out of here fast," Smoke advised.
Two of the wranglers began to pull heavy slabs of compressed snow off Smoke's legs. When most of the pressure eased, Smoke made a powerful thrust and broke free. He made a quick study of the shambles inside the bunkhouse.
"Can you get the door open?" he asked.
"Naw, boss. It swings out, remember?"
Smoke examined the hinge pins. "One of you take a knife and slip these pins. We'll pull the door down. It'll make a bigger tunnel to get us out."
Surprisingly, the potbellied stove had not been overturned. It sat skewed on its box of sand, emitting a cherry glow in the darkened room. The stovepipe had been scattered in sections on the floor, and a thick haze of smoke clung to the roofing above the rafters. Smoke realized they could suffocate if they didn't escape soon.
He searched the floor for what he wanted and came up with a tin dinner plate. "Once that door is out of the way, use your plates to dig in the snow," he instructed. "Move fast, but be sure to pack the upper surface as you go."
To set the example, Smoke Jensen was first to hack away at the white wall outside the bunkhouse. He hurled the snow behind him into the room and burrowed at an upward angle. Space factors limited the tunnelers to three, one crouched below Smoke and Sam Walker. At first they made good progress.
"Dang it," Sam exclaimed, after they had dug some three feet outside the door. "I've hit a big hunk of ice."
"Same here," Smoke advised. "We'll have to try to dig around it."
Tense minutes went past with little progress being made. To deviate would be to dig forever without a reference point. Or to tunnel beyond their source of air. When Smoke and his wranglers began to sweat, Smoke called for a change. Three others took their places at the barrier of white.
Smoke used some of the accumulated snow to douse the fire. One of the Sugarloaf hands made a grumbled protest. Smoke said nothing, only pointed at the thickening cloud over their heads. Looking chagrined, the wrangler said no more. He turned away to work at the window where the first escape had been made.
It looked mighty bleak, Smoke had to admit. Despite the hopelessness of their task, Smoke never lost his fierce determination to bring them all out of there alive. He joined the complainer at the window.
"You're right. This is the shortest way. Or at least, it was," Smoke told him.
Excerpted from RAGE OF THE MOUNTAIN MAN by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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