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BOOK: Cunning of the Mountain Man
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More shouts from the distant street soon reminded him. “What’re we waitin’ for?”

“The fellers at Donahue’s are fixin’ to join us,” Payne Finney bellowed. “Y’all stay here, I’ll hurry them on.”

Smoke Jensen knew he had to do something before they got the sand to carry out their threats. To do that, he needed help. The question of getting it still nagged him. What
had
happened to the hands he had with him?

Three men sat on their lathered horses under a gnarled, aged paloverde tree that topped a large, red-orange mound overlooking the Tucker ranch. The one in the middle pulled a dust-blurred, black Montana Peak Stetson from his balding head, and mopped his brow with a blue gingham bandanna. He puckered thick lips and spat a stream of tobacco juice that struck an industrious dung beetle, which agitatedly rolled his latest prize back toward the hole it called home.

“That woman down there,” he said to his companions. “She’s got lots of grit. Say that for her. Wonder what the Big Boss will have to come up with to get her off that place?”

A soft grunt came from the thick-necked man on his right. “I say we jist ride down there, give her what her old man got, an’ take over the spread.”

Contempt curled the bald man’s lips. “Idiot! You’d kill a woman? That’s why you take orders from me, and I take ’em from Quint Stalker. It’s gotta be all proper and legal, idjit.”

“Didn’t used to be that way,” the bellicose one complained.

“Right you are. But ever since ol’ Lew Wallace was territorial governor, we’ve had an extra large helpin’ of law and order.”

“You tell me? I done three years, breakin’ rocks, because of him.”

“Then don’t open that grub hole of yours and spout such stupid ideas, or you’ll do more than that.”

“Sure, Rufe, sure. But I still say it would be the easiest way.”

“All we’re here to do is drop in and scare her a little.” 

“Then why don’t we get on with it?”

They came down in a thunder of hooves. Dust boiled from under their horses, which rutched and groaned at the effort, adding to the eerie howls made by the men who rode them. Quint Stalker had sent only three men because it was such an easy assignment. In less than two minutes, the overconfident hard cases learned how badly their boss had read the situation.

A skinny, undersized boy with snowy hair popped up out of a haystack and slid down its side, yelling as he went. “Mom! Mom! Hey, they’re comin’ again!” The callused soles of his bare feet pounded clouds from the dry soil.

He cut left and right, zigzagging toward the house. A woman’s figure appeared in one window. Rufe and his henchmen had no time to take note of that. With a whoop, the bald one bore down on the lad and bowled him over with the churning shoulder of his mount. A wild squawk burst from Jimmy Tucker, as he went tail over top and rolled like a ball. He bit down hard, teeth grinding, and cast a prayerful glance toward his mother.

In a flash, that became the last bit of scaring they did.

A puff of smoke preceded the crack of a .56 caliber slug that cut the hat from bald Rufe’s head. He let out a squall of his own and grabbed uselessly at the flying Montana Peak, then set to cursing. Another bullet forced his companions to veer to the side and put some distance between them.

“Git back here! It’s only a damn woman,” Rufe bellowed.

Martha Tucker refined her aim some, her left elbow braced on the windowsill, tapered fingers holding the forestock. Calmly she squeezed off another shot from the Spencer. Her third round smacked meatily into Rufe’s right shoulder, and exploded terrible pain through his chest. It also convinced him that this was no simple damn woman.

He’d had enough. He, too, reined to his left and put spurs to the flanks of his horse. Another shot sounded behind him and sped all three on their way.

It started with a sound like an avalanche. A low, primal growl that swelled as it advanced metamorphosing into the roar of a tidal bore, bent on smashing up an estuary and inundating everything along the river. Although coming from a distance, the angry bellow echoed from the brick wall of the bakery. It made the hairs on the nape of Smoke Jensen’s neck rise and vibrate.

They were coming.

How many? Would they get in? Smoke Jensen had been scared in his life many times before. Yet nothing compared to what he experienced now—not the grizzly that had nearly taken off his face before he killed it with a Greenriver knife . . . not the dozen Blackfeet warriors who had surrounded him, alone in camp, with Preacher out running traps . . . not when he faced down a dozen hardened killers in the street of Banning. None of them compared. This absolutely paralyzed him for the moment. He was so helpless, vulnerable. Death rode the mob like a single steed, a hound out of Hell, and it made Smoke reexamine his own fragile mortality. How easily they could take him.

NO! He could find a way to get out of this. Somehow, he could hold off the mob. Think, damnit!

The rattle, squeak, and clang of the cellblock door interrupted Smoke Jensen’s fevered speculation as it slammed open. He left the window at once, pressed his cheek to the corridor bars, and looked along the narrow walkway. Waddling toward him, Smoke saw the fat figure of Ferdie Biggs. The keys jangled musically in one pudgy paw.

“Turn around and back up against the bars, Jensen.” “You’re taking me out of here?”

“Yep. Jist do as I say.”

Smoke turned around and put his hands through the space between two bars. Biggs reached him a moment later, puffing and gasping. Cold bands of steel closed around the wrists of Smoke Jensen. A key turned in the small locks.

“Now step back. All the way to the wall.”

“Am I being taken to some safer place?” Smoke asked, his expectations rising.

“Get back, I said.” Biggs snarled the words as he reached behind his back and drew a .44 Smith and Wesson from his waistband. He stepped to the door and turned a large key in the lockcase. The bar gave noisily, and the jailer swung the barrier wide. He motioned to Smoke with the muzzle of the Smith, and a nasty smirk spread on his moon face. “Naw. I’m gonna give you over to those good ol’ boys out there.”

Four

Ferdie Biggs prodded Smoke Jensen ahead of him along the cellblock corridor. At the lattice-work door he passed on through without closing it. He had done the same with the cell, the keys hanging in the lock. The sudden rush of adrenaline had cleared the fuzziness from Smoke’s head. He realized that for all of Biggs’s slovenly appearance and illiterate speech, he was at least clever enough to lay the groundwork for it to appear the mob had overwhelmed him and broke into the jail.

“You’re not smart enough to fake a forced entry, Ferdie,” Smoke taunted him. “You’re going to get caught.” Biggs gave him a rough shove that propelled Smoke across the room to the sheriff’s desk. The narrow edge of the top dug into his thighs. Bright pinpoints of pain further cleared Smoke’s thinking. He was ready, then, when Biggs barked his next command.

“Turn around, I wanna have some fun, bust you up some, before I let the boys in.”

Smoke turned and kept swinging his right leg. The toe of his boot connected with the hand that held the six-gun and knocked it flying. It discharged a round that cut a hot trail past Smoke’s rib cage, and smashed a blue granite coffeepot on a small, Acme two-burner wood stove in the comer. Biggs bellowed in pain and surprise, a moment before Smoke reversed the leg and planted his boot heel in the jailer’s doughy middle.

Ferdie Biggs bent double, the air whooshing out from his lungs. Meanwhile Smoke Jensen recovered his balance and used his other foot to plant a solid kick to the side of Ferdie Biggs’s head. From where it made contact came a ripe melon plop!, and Ferdie went to his knees.

“The keys, Ferdie,” Smoke rasped out. “Give me the keys to these handcuffs.”

“Ain’t . . . gonna . . . do it.”

Smoke kicked him again, a sharp boot toe in the chest. Ferdie gulped and sputtered, one hand clawed at his throat in an effort to suck in air. He turned deep-set, piggish eyes on Smoke Jensen in pleading. Smoke belted him again, from the side. A thin wail came from far down Ferdie’s throat—he’d been able to gulp some breath.

“I keep kicking until I get the keys.”

Smoke’s hard, flat, unemotional voice reached Ferdie in a way nothing else might. One trembling hand delved into a side pocket of his vest. Shakily, he withdrew a single key on a small ring. He dropped it twice, while he knee-walked to where Smoke Jensen stood beside the desk.

“Now, reach around behind me and unlock these manacles.” Smoke shoved the tip of one boot up in Ferdie’s crotch. “Try anything, and you’ll sing soprano for the rest of your life.”

Sobbing for breath, and in desperation, Ferdie complied. It took three fumbling attempts to undo the first lock. Then Smoke took the key from Ferdie’s trembling fingers and shoved the bleeding, glazed-eyed jailer back against the wall that contained a gun rack. Smoke freed his other wrist, then snapped the cuffs on Ferdie.

“Is there a back way out of here?”

Before Ferdie could answer, a loud pounding began on the closed and barred front door. “C’mon, Ferdie, open up!” a man bellowed.

“Bring him out! Bring him out! Bring him out!” the mob chanted in the background.

“Don’t be a fool, Ferdie. He ain’t worth gettin’ hurt over.”

“Your ‘good ol’ boys’ don’t seem to like you much, Ferdie,” Smoke taunted. “Answer me. Is there a back way out?”

“N-no. Usedta be, but the sheriff had it bricked up.”

“How brilliant of him. Nothing for it but to face them down.”

Ferdie Biggs blinked incredulously. “How you gonna do that, all alone?”

“I won’t be alone,” Smoke advised him as he reached to the gun rack. “I’ll have Mr. L. C. Smith with me.”

He selected a short-barrel, 10-gauge L. C. Smith Wells Fargo gun and opened the breech. From a drawer at the bottom of the rack, he took six brass buckshot casings. Two he inserted into the shotgun. A loud crash sounded from the direction of the front door. Ferdie Biggs cringed.

“They shouldn’ do that. It was all set—” He snapped rubbery lips tightly closed and lost his porcine appearance as he realized he had said too much.

“Set up or not, it isn’t going the way they expected, is it?”

A rhythmic banging sounded as four men rammed a heavy wooden bench against the outer face of the door. Ferdie worked his thick lips.

“Oh, hell. Sheriff’s gonna have my butt, if that door gets broke.”

“The thing you should be worried about is that I’ve got your butt right now.”

Ferdie Biggs looked at Smoke Jensen with sudden, shocked realization. “You ain’t gonna shoot me, are you?”

“Not unless I have to.” The door vibrated with renewed intensity, and Smoke cut his eyes to it. He saw signs of strain on the oak bar.

“Get something heavier,” came advice from the mob.

“Hell, get some dynamite.”

That sent Ferdie Biggs on a staggered course to the shuttered window. He shouted through the thick wooden covers and closed the lower sash. “Oh, Jeeezus, don’t do that. I’m still in here.”

“Who cares?” a laughing voice told Ferdie.

“Great friends you’ve got.” Smoke Jensen added a cold, death-rattle laugh to increase the effect of his words.

From a drawer in the sheriff’s desk, Smoke took a very familiar pair of cartridge belts. One had the pocket slung low, for a right-hand draw. The other rode high on the left, with the butt of a .44 pointing forward canted at a sharp angle.

Smoke cut his eyes to a thoroughly shaken Ferdie. “And here the sheriff told me they found no sign of my own guns. Now they show up in his desk. Wonder how that happened?”

“Don’t ask me. All I saw was that old .45.”

Smoke hastily strapped himself into the dual rigs. His hand had barely left the last buckle, when the door gave a hollow
boom
and the cross-bar splintered apart and fell to the floor. Another
slam
and the thick oak portal swung inward. Three men spilled into the room. The one in the lead held a rope, already tied into a hangman’s knot.

To his left stood another, who looked to Smoke Jensen to be a saddle tramp. His wooden expression showed not the slightest glimmer of intelligence. The rifle he held at hip level commanded all the respect he needed. To the other side, Smoke saw a pigeon-breasted fellow, who could have been the grocery clerk at the general mercantile. Indeed, the fan of a feather duster projected from a hip pocket.

Triumph shone on their faces for only a second, until they took in the scattergun competently held in the hands of Smoke Jensen. Payne Finney reacted first. He let go of the noose and dived for the six-gun in its right-hand pocket.

“For godsake, shoot him, Gore,” he yelled.

“You shoot him, Payne,” came a wailed reply.

Smoke Jensen had only one chance. He swung the barrels of the L. C. Smith into position between the two gunmen, so that the shot column split its deadly load into two bodies. The deafening roar filled the room. A scream of pain came from the suddenly animated man named Gore. A cloud of gray-white powder smoke obscured the view for a moment. Smoke Jensen had already moved and gazed beyond the huge puffball.

His finger had already found the second trigger; Smoke guided the shotgun unerringly to the next largest threat. When that man made no move to carry on the fight, he sought out the two he had shot. Both lay on the floor.

Payne Finney had taken the most of the 00 pellets, and bled profusely from five wounds. Gore had at least three pellets in his side and right forearm. He lay silent and still now. Shock had knocked him unconscious. A third man, who had been unlucky enough to be in the open space between Finney and Gore, was also down, his kneecap shot away. He writhed and whined in agony. Smoke’s keen sight also took in something else.

Sputtering trails of sparks arched over the heads of the mob, who stood stunned on the stoop and in the street. Instinctively, Smoke dived away from the open door, expecting a shattering blast of dynamite. Instead the red cylinders fell among the members of the lynch mob and went off with thunderous, though relatively harmless roars. Starbursts of red, white, and green fountained up to sting and burn the blood-hungry crowd. Immediately, three six-guns opened up from behind the startled men of Socorro. Yells of consternation rose among the would-be hangmen.

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