Authors: William W. Johnstone
Then his face turned as gray and hard as stone. Sally gasped, and Monte Carson, even though he and Smoke had been friends for a long time as he had just said, took a step back.
He couldn't help it. Smoke looked like he wanted to kill somebody.
And when Smoke Jensen felt like that, anywhere around him was a dangerous place to be.
Smoke thanked Monte Carson for bringing the message out to the ranch and asked him to stay for supper, but he didn't offer to share the contents of the envelope. He could tell that offended his old friend a little, but it couldn't be helped.
“Guess I'd better head on back to town,” Carson said, “but I'm obliged for the offer of supper. Another time.”
“All right, Monte. Thanks again.”
Carson untied his horse, swung up into the saddle, and rode away. When he was out of earshot, a frowning Sally asked, “What was that all about, Smoke? You don't normally act so mysterious. You hurt Monte's feelings by not telling him what that says.”
She nodded toward the message that Smoke still clutched in his hand. He had to fight back the impulse to crumple it in anger.
“Let's go inside,” he said. “I'll tell you all about it.”
Once they were sitting down in the parlor, Smoke held up the paper and said, “This is a letter from a man named Rudolph Kroll.”
Sally shook her head and said, “I don't think I know him. I don't believe I've ever even heard of him.”
“No real reason you would have, but the name's familiar to me. The man's an outlaw. He and his brother have a gang that's run rampant all over the frontier.”
“Wait a minute,” Sally said. “I think I've heard the name after all. Something about a trial . . .”
“Mordecai Kroll, that's Rudolph's younger brother, was captured over in Arizona a while back, put on trial for his various crimes, and sentenced to hang. He's still there, waiting while several other states and territories are in court trying to get him extradited so they can try him, too.”
Sally put a hand to her mouth and her eyes widened.
“I remember now,” she said. “There was an article in
about him. And it said he was captured by . . . Oh, my God, Smoke, it was Luke who captured him!”
A while back, Smoke had discovered that his older brother, Luke, long thought to have been killed in the waning days of the Civil War, actually was still alive and had been making his living as a bounty hunter for the past fifteen years under the name Luke Smith. Gravely wounded, Luke had wound up at the Sugarloaf to be reunited with his younger brother and nursed back to health by Sally. He had helped Smoke handle some trouble, and Smoke had made it clear to him that he was welcome to stay, that he would always have a home here if he wanted it. But Luke had chosen to resume his drifting ways, although he had dropped the Smith name and called himself Luke Jensen again.
Smoke nodded in response to Sally's exclamation and said, “That's right. And now Rudolph Kroll, Mordecai's brother, has captured Luke. He's threatening to kill him unless . . .”
“Unless what, Smoke?”
A faint, bleak smile touched Smoke's lips as he said, “Unless I break Mordecai out of Yuma Prison and return him safely to Kroll's hideout.”
Sally stared at him in silence for a long moment, then shook her head.
“You can't do that,” she said. “That would make you an outlaw, too.”
“I know. That's why I didn't tell Monte what was going on. It's better for him if he can honestly say that he had no idea about any of this.”
Sally frowned and said, “You can't be thinking about going along with what Kroll wants.”
“Luke is my brother. For fifteen years I thought I'd lost him.” Smoke's voice hardened. “I'm not going to lose him again to some outlaw.”
“So you'll become a fugitive yourself? That's insane, Smoke. And it doesn't even take into account the fact that you probably can't break this Mordecai Kroll out of Yuma. It's supposed to be impossible to escape from that prison, isn't it?”
“Men have done it,” Smoke mused. “It's just that there's not much place for them to run when they do. That southwestern corner of Arizona is pretty much a hellhole. The authorities have Apache trackers, too, and they send them out after escaped prisoners. It usually doesn't take long to run them to ground.”
“So, you see,” Sally said, “you can't do it.” A speculative look came over her beautiful face. “You'd have better luck trying to find out where Rudolph Kroll is holding Luke and rescuing him.”
Smoke smiled again. For all her beauty and tenderness, Sally had a fierce streak in her as well. She had taken up arms against their enemies more than once in the past, and given a good account of herself, too. Even though her first impulse was to worry about the dangers involved, deep down she didn't want to let Rudolph Kroll get away with kidnapping Luke and threatening his life, either.
“The Kroll gang has pulled jobs all over the West,” Smoke said. “There's no telling where their hideout might be. I could search for years and maybe never find it. The law could settle things and hang Mordecai Kroll any day now, and if he dies, Luke dies. So there's no time to waste.”
“If you don't know where the hideout is, how are you supposed to take Mordecai there if you get him out of prison?”
“I figure Rudolph Kroll plans to have someone meet us and take us there, or else he'll get word to me some other way of where we're supposed to go. He wouldn't be going to this much trouble if he didn't have things worked out.”
“This is just . . . revenge,” Sally said angrily. “He's tormenting you as Luke's brother because of what he thinks Luke did to his brother.”
“I reckon you're right about that. That's the way a vicious outlaw like Kroll would look at it.”
Sally leaned back in the rocking chair where she sat, spread her hands, and said, “So what are you going to do? You can't help Mordecai Kroll escape without risking your life, and even if you succeed, it'll ruin our lives.”
“I don't know,” Smoke said. “I'm starting to have a glimmering of a plan.”
“And there's something else,” Sally went on. “Say that you do it. You break Mordecai out of prison and take him to the gang's hideout. You know good and well that when you get there, Rudolph Kroll plans to kill both you and Luke. He can't afford to let you go when you know the location of the hideout.”
“I thought of that right away,” Smoke admitted. He held up the note from Kroll. “I can tell from this message, though, that there's something old Rudolph doesn't know.”
“I've got a secret weapon on my side,” Smoke said with a smile. “Two of 'em, as a matter of fact.”
Matt Jensen's eyes narrowed as he looked along the stage road to the narrow gap up ahead where the trail ran between two rugged bluffs topped with boulders.
“Is that the place, Salty?” he asked the grizzled old jehu on the high seat beside him.
“Durned tootin' it is,” Salty Stevens replied as he flapped the reins against the back of the six-horse hitch to keep them going. The road ran up a slope to the gap, and the stagecoach always slowed down on this stretch.
Matt had a shotgun propped up beside him with his left hand holding it as the weapon's butt rested on the seat. His Winchester was right behind him, riding in the fringed sheath he had removed from his saddle and lashed to the railing that ran around the top of the coach. The six-gun on Matt's right hip and the Bowie knife sheathed on his left hip completed his armament.
If he needed more than that to handle any trouble he and Salty ran into, chances were not even a Gatling gun would be enough.
This leg of the stagecoach run in southern New Mexico Territory had been plagued with holdups recently, enough so that most potential passengers thought better of it and found some other way to get where they were going. Wells Fargo's business was down as well, to the point that the express company had joined forces with the stagecoach line to offer a substantial reward for the robbers.
Matt, who spent most of his time on the drift, had happened to be in Silver City when the reward notice was posted next to the door of the Wells Fargo office. Being low on both funds and supplies at the moment, this seemed like a fortuitous circumstance to him.
He opened the door and went in.
Only one person was in the office, standing behind a paper-littered desk wearing a harried expression. She was a young woman, and the expression didn't make her any less lovely as far as Matt was concerned. In fact, he thought the strand of rich brown hair that had worked its way loose from the arrangement of curls on top of her head and fallen over her left eye just made her prettier. She blew the strand of hair away from her face and said, “Yes? What can I do for you?”
“I'm looking for the Wells Fargo agent,” Matt said.
“You're looking at her,” the young woman snapped. “For the time being, at least.”
“Oh.” Matt grinned. He was big, brawny, fair-haired, and the ladies seemed to find him reasonably easy on the eyes. It might be a challenge to charm this one, though, considering the impatient mood she seemed to be in.
Good thing he liked a challenge, thought Matt.
“I saw the notice posted outside about the reward,” he went on as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Are you still looking for somebody to sign on as a shotgun guard?”
The woman looked a little more interested now. She ran her gaze over the big young man standing in front of her clad in jeans, a faded blue bib-front shirt, and a tipped-back black Stetson. She said, “That's right. You want the job?”
“I could use the reward,” Matt admitted honestly.
“What about some bullet holes in your hide? Could you use those, too? Because there's a chance that's what you'll get.”
“Life's full of chances,” Matt said as his shoulders rose and fell. “Good and bad. Can't have one without the other.”
“Ah. A frontier philosopher. What's your name? Socrates?”
The name didn't seem to mean anything to her. That came as no surprise to Matt. Mostly it seemed that everybody west of the Mississippi, as well as many of those east of the big river, had heard of his adopted brother, Smoke. Matt was starting to make a name for himself as well, at least in certain circles, but he was far from achieving the same level of notoriety as his older brother.
“You've seen the notice. You know there's been trouble on this run.”
Matt nodded and said, “Yep. You wouldn't be offering a reward if there wasn't some risk. But I've handled trouble before.”
“You don't have to take the job to go after the reward, you know. You could try to track down the gang on your own.”
“Yeah, but that seems like an awful lot of trouble,” Matt said. “If I'm on the stagecoach, they've got to come to me.”
For the first time, a slight smile appeared on the young woman's face.
“That's true,” she said. “You'll have to pass muster with the driver. He works for the stage line, not for Wells Fargo. But if he agrees, the job is yours. My name is Janice Mullins, by the way.”
“It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Mullins. It's not often you find a lady running a Wells Fargo office. Especially not a lady asâ”
She held up a hand to stop him before he could finish the compliment.
Mullins,” she said, “and I'm only running the office because my husband broke his leg and is recuperating. So I'm afraid the reward for those outlaws is the only one you're going to get here, Mr. Jensen.”
“Oh.” Matt grinned again to hide his disappointment. “That's all right. I'm not fond of outlaws. Not one little bit.”
“Then welcome aboard,” Janice Mullins said. “We can use your help. Salty should be down at the stage line office, or in the barn behind it.”
“The regular driver on this run,” Janice explained.
“I'm a little surprised he hasn't been scared off, too.”
“It takes a lot to scare off Salty Stevens.”
Matt had understood that comment as soon as he met Salty. The old-timer “still had the bark on,” as the saying went. His bristly white beard and weathered face testified that he had plenty of experience. His eyes were deep-set and surrounded by permanent lines from squinting in the sun. He wasn't big, but he was wiry and tough as whang leather. Matt liked him immediately, and the feeling seemed to be mutual.
Because of that, Matt found himself now on this stage to Lordsburg, swaying slightly on the seat next to Salty as the coach approached the gap. There were no passengers, but a Wells Fargo express pouch was locked in the box under the seat, and Janice Mullins had stressed the importance of it reaching its destination.
“How many times have you been hit on this run?” Matt asked Salty.
“Me personally, twice,” the old-timer replied. “Other drivers, four more times, all in the past couple of months. Those gents quit, but not me. I'll be danged if a bunch o' no-good owlhoots are gonna make me holler calf rope.”
Matt chuckled at Salty's cantankerous reply, and then asked, “Has anybody been killed so far in these holdups?”
“No, but it ain't been from lack o' tryin'. Them desperadoes have burned powder at us ever' time.”
“What about this gap up ahead? Have they ever stopped the coach there?”
“Nope. But I figure it's just a matter of time. Perfect spot for a holdup, ain't it?”
“Perfect,” Matt agreed. And he had a crawling feeling on the back of his neck that he recognized as his instincts trying to warn him.
Something was going to happen here, or he was going to be very surprised.
It would happen soon, too, because as the road leveled out again and entered the gap, Salty took his whip from its holder, popped it over the heads of the team, and yelled, “Hi-yaaahhh! Move along there, you gol-dang hunks o' crow bait!”