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Authors: Unknown Author

Cunning of the Mountain Man

BOOK: Cunning of the Mountain Man
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One

Sound came to him first. It might be the buzz of an insect, only faint and teasingly erratic. Feeling slowly returned in the form of a throbbing stab of pain in his head. Light registered in a dimly perceived slash of pale gray rectangle, intersected by dark lines. Last to return was memory. Fragile and incomplete, it at least gave him a name, an identity. Jensen. Smoke Jensen.

For many, that name conjured images of a larger-than-life hero, as featured in over a hundred penny dreadfuls and dime novels. Legend had indeed drawn Smoke Jensen larger than his six-foot-two, although broad shoulders, a thick, muscular neck, big hands, and tree-trunk legs left him lacking in nothing when it came to physical prowess. He could truly be considered of heroic proportions.

In the opinion of others, Smoke Jensen was a killer and an outlaw. Some claimed he had killed three hundred men, not counting Indians and Mexicans. The truth was closer to a third of that. And, there was no back-down in Smoke Jensen. He had shot it out with the fastest, fought the toughest, outrode the swiftest. Now he found himself helpless as a kitten.

With an effort that nearly failed to overcome the pulses

of misery-laden blackness, Smoke Jensen forced himself up on his elbows. The back of his head felt like he had been kicked by a mule. Where was he? With the fuzziness of a swimmer emerging from murky water, his vision managed to focus on the gray smudge above his head.

A window . . . a barred window. How had he gotten here?

Slowly, scraps of memory began to solidify. “Yes,” said Smoke Jensen in a whisper to himself. “I am—or was—in Socorro, New Mexico.”

He had been on his way back to the Sugarloaf from selling a string of horses to the Arizona Rangers. They had been fine animals, big-chested and full of stamina. The Rangers wanted some sturdy, mountain-bred mounts for the detachment patrolling the areas around Flagstaff, Globe, and Show Low. Smoke’s animals, raised in a high valley deep in the Rockies, answered their needs perfectly. The sale had been arranged through an old friend, Jeff York, now a Ranger captain. His recollection gave Smoke a sensation of warmth and contentment. Even though he was in jail, the money he had received would be safe. It had been forwarded to Big Rock, Colorado, by telegraph bank draft.

None of this told him why he had awakened with a gut-wrenching headache in a jail cell.

A new scrap of memory made itself known. He had three hands along. Where were they? Sitting up proved even more agonizing than rising to his elbows. For a moment the brick walls and bars swam in giddy disorder. Gradually the surge of nausea receded, and his eyes cleared. Full lips in a grim slash, Smoke Jensen examined his surroundings.

He soon discovered that outside of himself—and two drunks sleeping it off in adjacent cells—the jail was empty. The snores of one of the inebriates had provided the insect noises he had first heard. Again he asked himself what had gotten him in jail. Another wave of discomfort sent a big hand to the back of his head.

Gingerly, Smoke Jensen inspected the lump he found there. It was the size of a goose egg and crusted with dried blood. At least it indicated that he didn’t have a hangover. Smoke then tried to focus his thoughts on the past few hours. All his effort produced another blank. Suddenly, a door of flat iron straps banged open down the corridor from Smoke’s cell. Two men entered, both with empty holsters. Obviously the jailers, Smoke reasoned. At least now he would have some answers.

In the lead came a slob whose belly slopped over a wide, thick leather belt to the point of obscuring his groin. He waddled on hamlike thighs and oddly skinny, undersized calves. His face was a bloated moon, with large, jiggly jowls; the lard of his cheeks all but buried his small, pig eyes. He carried a ring of keys and a ladle.

Behind him came a smaller man lugging a heavy kettle, filled with steaming liquid. Shorter by a head than the fat one, by comparison he managed to look frail and undernourished. His protuberant buck teeth and thin, pencil-line mustache, over an almost lipless mouth, gave him a rodent appearance. In a giddy moment, Smoke Jensen thought the man would be more suited to be jailer in Raton, New Mexico. Their presence roused one of the drunks.

“Hey, Ferdie, what you got for breakfast?”

Ferdinand “Ferdie” Biggs worked his small, wet, red mouth and spoke in a surprisingly high, waspish tone. “Ain’t gonna be any breakfast for you, Eckers. I ain’t gonna have you go an’ puke it up ... an’ me have to clean up the cell! Got some coffee, though, if you can call this crap coffee.”

“How ’bout me, Ferdie Biggs?” whined the other boozer. “You know I don’t spew up what I eat after a good drunk.”

“It’s a waste of the county’s money feedin’ you, Smithers. If you want som’thin’ to fill your belly, suck yer thumb.”

Smithers’ face flushed, and he gripped the bars of his cell door as though he might rip them out. “Damn you, Biggs. If you didn’t have these bars to protect you, I’d beat the livin’ hell out of you.”

“Says you,” Biggs responded. By then he and his companion had reached the neighboring cells. Biggs turned and dipped the ladle into the light brown liquid and poured a tin cup half-full. “Since you gave me so much lip, you get only half a cup, Smithers.”

“I’m ravin’ hungry,” Smithers protested.

Biggs gave him a cold, hard stare. “You want to be wearin’ this?” Smithers subsided and Biggs shoved the cup through the access slot cut in the bars above the lock case. He served Eckers next. Three steps brought him to the cell occupied by Smoke Jensen. He paused there, his small mouth working in a habitual chewing motion.

When he took in Smoke’s shaky condition, Biggs produced a wide grin that revealed crooked, yellowed teeth.

“You’re gonna hang, Jensen. You killed Mr. Tucker in cold blood, and they’re gonna string you up for it.” Smoke nodded dumbly. Murder called for a hanging, he silently agreed.

Who is Mr. Tucker?

Martha Tucker sat on the old horsehide sofa in the parlor. Head bowed, hands covering her face, she sobbed out her wretchedness. Larry gone, dead, murdered they had told her. She vaguely recalled hearing the name Smoke Jensen, who the sheriff had informed her had killed Lawrence Tucker. Only her abysmal grief kept her from now recalling who or what Smoke Jensen was. What was she going to do?

What about the children? What about the ranch? Could she legally claim it? Most states, like her native Ohio, considered women mere chattel—property like a man’s house, horse, or furniture. At least New Mexico was still a territory and under federal law. That might offer some hope. Martha’s shoulders shook with greater violence as each pointed question came to her. For that matter, would the hands stay on with Larry gone? She knew with bitter certainty that no one who considered himself a “real” man would willingly work for a woman. Martha broke off her lamentations at the sound of soft, hesitant footsteps on the large, hooked rug in the center of the parlor floor.

She dabbed at her eyes with a damp kerchief and looked up to see her eldest child Jimmy. At thirteen, albeit small for his age, he had that gangly, stretched-out appearance of the onset of puberty. His cottony hair had a shaggy look to it; Larry was going to take him into town Saturday for a visit to the barber. Oh, God, who would do it now?

“Mother . . . Mommy? Please—please, don’t cry so. Rose and Tommy are real scared.” The freckles scattered across his nose and high cheekbones stood out against the pallor of his usually lightly tanned face.

For his part, Jimmy had never seen his mother like this. Her ash-blond hair was always meticulously in place, except for a stray strand that would escape to hang down in a curl on her forehead when she baked. She was so young, and the most beautiful woman Timmy had ever seen. His heart ached for her, so much so that it pushed aside the deep grief he felt for his father’s death.

“Jimmy . . .” Anguish crumpled Martha’s face. “Oh, my dearest child what are we . . . what can we do?”

At only thirteen, Jimmy Tucker lacked any wise adult suggestions to offer. All he could do was at last give vent to the sorrow that ate at him, and let large, silent tears course down his boyish cheeks.

Quint Stalker sat his horse in the saddle notch of a low ridge. A big man, with thick, broad shoulders, short neck, and a large head Stalker held a pair of field glasses to his eyes; bushy, black brows seemed to sprout from above the hooded lenses. Down below, to Quint Stalker’s rear, in a cactus-bristling gulch, waited the seven men who would be going with him. His attention centered on a small, flat-roofed structure with a tall, tin stove pipe towering above its pole roof at the bottom of the slope.

Old Zeke Dillon had run the trading post beyond the crest for most of his life, Quint reflected. You’d think a feller in his late sixties would be glad to get away from all that hard work and take some good money along, too. But not Zeke.

Bullheaded, was Zeke. A stubborn, old coot who insisted on hanging onto his quarter-section homestead until he dropped dead behind the plank counter of his mercantile, where he traded goods for turquoise and blankets with the Hopi and Zuni. Well, today he’d get an offer he could not turn down.

It just happened that Zeke Dillon’s trading post occupied ground far more valuable than he knew. But Quint Stalker’s bosses knew. That’s why they had sent Quint to obtain title to the 160 acres of sand and prickly pear, roadrunners and cactus wrens. Quint lowered the field glasses, satisfied that Zeke, and no one else, occupied the pole-roofed building half a mile from his present position. He raised a gloved hand and signaled his men.

Twenty minutes later, Quint and his henchmen rode up to the front of the trading post. Dust hazed the air around them for a while, before an oven-breath of breeze hustled it away. Quint Stalker and three of his men had dismounted by the time Zeke Dillon came to the door. He stood there, squinted a moment in hopes of recognizing the visitors, and rubbed wet hands on a stained white apron.

“Howdy, boys. Step down and bide a spell. There’s cool water an’ lemonade inside, whiskey, too, if you ain’t Injun.”

“Whiskey and lemonade sound good, old-timer,” Quint Stalker responded.

Zeke brightened. “Like in one o’ them fancy cocktails I been hearin’ about out San Francisco way, eh?”

With a nod Quint shoved past the old man. “Sort of, old-timer.” Inside, he let his eyes adjust to the dimness, his sun-burnished skin grateful for the coolness. Then he turned on Zeke Dillon. “Business first, then we’ll get to the pleasure.”

“How’s that?”

“Before we leave here this afternoon, you’re gonna sell us your trading post.”

“Nope. Never on yer life. I’ve done turned down better offers than the likes of you can make.”

Suddenly a .44 Merwin and Hulbert appeared in Quint Stalker’s hand. “What if I were to say you’d sign a bill of sale and take what we offer, or I’ll blow your damned brains out?”

Zeke Dillon swallowed hard blinked gulped again, and kept his eyes fixed on the gray lead blobs that showed in the open chambers of the cylinder. Tears of regret and humiliation filled his eyes. Not ten years ago, he’d have beaten this two-bit gunney to the draw, and seen him laid out cold on the floor with a bullet in his heart. But not now. Not ever again. With a soft, choked-off sob, Zeke said goodbye to his beloved way of life of the past fifty years.

Quint Stalker produced a filled-out bill of sale and a proper transfer of title form, and handed a steel-nibbed pen to the thoroughly intimidated old man. With a sinking heart, Zeke Dillon dipped the pen in an inkwell on the counter and affixed his signature to both. Then, sighing, he turned to Stalker.

“All right, you lowlife bastard. When do I get my money?”

“Right now,” Quint Stalker replied evenly, as he shot Zeke Dillon through the heart.

Sheriff Jake Reno, of Socorro County, New Mexico, who looked every bit an older—but less sloppily fat—version of his chief jailer, stepped into the hall from an office above the Cattlemen’s Union Bank in Socorro. He gleefully counted the large sheaf of bills, using a splayed, wet thumb. Nice doing business with fellers like that, he concluded.

All he had to do is see that one Mr. Smoke Jensen gets hanged all right and proper, and he’d get another payment of the same amount. Not bad for a couple of day’s work. Given the sheriff’s nature, he didn’t even bother to wonder why it was that these “business men,” as they called themselves, were so set on disposing of Smoke Jensen.

God, the man was a legend in his own time, a dozen times over. Sheriff Reno knew
who
Smoke Jensen was, and a thousand dollars went a long way to insuring he didn’t give a damn why those fancy-talking men—clearly the one with a dash in his name sounded like an Englishman—wanted Smoke Jensen sent off to his eternal reward; it was none of the sheriff’s business. Time, Sheriff Reno decided, to celebrate his good fortune.

Down on the street, he walked the short block and a half to the Hang Dog Saloon. The building front featured a large, scalloped marquee, heavy with red and gold paint, lettered in bold black. It had a big, ornately bordered oval painting in the middle, which showed a dog, hanging upside down, one foot caught by a strand of barbed wire. It served as a point of amusement for some of the town wags. For others, more involved with the war against the “wicked wire,” it represented a political statement. For still others, the sign pointed out man’s indifference to cruelty to animals.

Sheriff Reno entered through tall, glass-filled wooden doors. The bevel-edged panels sported a cheery, six-wide border of mixed red, green, and black checks. He waved to several cronies and headed directly to the bar, where he greeted the proprietor and bartender, Morton Plummer.

“Howdy, Mort. A shot and a beer.”

“Sort of early for you, ain’t it, Sheriff?”

Reno gave Plummer a frown. “I’m in a mood to celebrate.”

“Celebrate what, Jake?” Morton Plummer asked as he poured a shot of rye.

“I got me a notorious killer locked up in my jail. And enough evidence to hang him for the murder of one of our more prominent citizens.”

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