The stranger pushed back his chair and stood up.
“Big,” a card player said.
Jack Lynch stood with his legs spread, his hand by his gun.
The front door opened and a blast of cold air swept the saloon. The town marshal stepped in and sized up the situation in about two seconds. “Back off, Jack,” he barked the words. “And I mean right now, boy.”
“Marshal, I ...”
“Shut up, Jack!” the marshal hollered. “Put that hammer thong back in place and do it slow. Ahh. That’s better. Now settle down.” He looked at the stranger. “Been a long time.”
“Five years ago. Your horse threw a shoe and you stopped in town. You’re looking well.”
“I recommend the apple pie,” the stranger said. “It was delicious.” He picked up his hat and settled it on his head.
“I’ll sure have me a wedge. And some coffee, Ralph,” he said to the barkeep.
“Comin’ right up, Marshal.”
“See you around,” the stranger said.
The front door opened and closed and the stranger was gone, walking across the still frozen street to the hotel.
“Sorry, Marshal,” Jack said. “I didn’t know he was a friend of yours.”
The marshal sipped his coffee. “Jack, do you have any idea at all who that was?”
“Some yeller-bellied tinhorn,” Jack replied.
The gambler smiled.
The marshal’s eyes were bleak as he turned his head to look at the young man. “Jack, you’ve done some dumb things in the years that I’ve known you. But today took the cake. That was Smoke Jensen.”
Jack swayed for a moment, grabbing at the bar for support. The gambler kicked a chair across the floor and the marshal placed it upright for Jack to sit in. Jack Lynch’s eyes were dull and his face was pale. A bit of spittle oozed out of one corner of his mouth.
“I knew it was him as soon as he stood up and I seen that left-hand gun in a cross-draw,” the gambler said.
“And ... you didn’t say nothin’ to me?” Jack mumbled the words.
“Why should I? It was your mouth that got you into it. You’re a loud-mouth, pushy kid. It would have served you right if Jensen had drilled you clean through.”
Jack recovered his bluster and now he was embarrassed. He stood up from the chair. His legs were still a little shaky and he backed up to the bar and leaned against it. “You can’t talk to me like that, gambler.”
The marshal was more than a little miffed at Jack’s attitude. He’d pulled him out of one situation; be damned if he’d interfere in this one. He walked over to a table and sat down.
Across the street, in his room, Smoke had taken pen and paper and was writing to his wife, Sally.
“Don’t push me, kid,” the gambler said. “I’ve lived too long for me to take much crap from the likes of you. Jensen just didn’t want to kill you. He’s tired of it. I haven’t reached that point yet.”
“You son of a ...” Jack grabbed for iron.
The gambler shook his right arm and a derringer slipped into his hand. He fired both barrels of the .41. Jack coughed and sat down on the floor.
Smoke thought he heard gunshots and paused in his writing. When no more shots were heard, he dipped the nib into an ink well and began writing.
How are you? I miss you very much but hope you are having a good time visiting family and friends back east ...
The gambler broke open the .41 derringer and reloaded. Jack’s eyes were on him. The front of Jack’s white shirt was spreading crimson.
“I don’t want to die!” Jack cried.
“You should have thought about that before you strapped on that iron, boy,” the marshal told him.
“I ’spect it does.”
... Nothing seems to change here, Sally. The only place where I am reasonably assured of being left alone is on the Sugarloaf. But you know the urge to see the land is strong within me, and I shall not be tied down like a vicious yard dog. This evening, while I was having supper, another young punk tried to goad me into drawing ...
“I want you out of town on the next stage, gambler,” the marshal told the man.
“Would you have told Jensen that?” the gambler asked. The marshal met his eyes. “Yes.”
The gambler nodded his head. “Yes, I think you would have. All right, marshal. I’ll leave in the morning.”
must go still further, up into Wyoming, then
maybe across into Idaho, to find the bulls I’m looking for, Sally. If it were just a little bit warmer, I would sleep under the stars and not even enter towns except for provisions. But I fear this married man has grown too accustomed to comforters, feather ticks, and rugs on the floor on cold mornings. And, I must add, the nearness of you ...
“Put on my headstone that I was a gunfighter, will you, Marshal?” Jack said, his voice growing weak.
“If that’s what you want, Jack.”
“It don’t hurt no more.”
“That’s good, Jack.”
“I can’t hear you, Marshal. Speak up. They’s a roarin’ in my ears. I’m a-feared, Marshal Brackton! Is there really a hell, you reckon?”
... I’m in a little town just south of the Uinta Mountains, Sally. I knew the marshal here, and he intervened this evening and saved a young man from death, at least at my hands. I’m going into the high country tomorrow, Sally. Where there are no towns and hopefully, no young hellions looking to make a reputation. I shall build a lean-to for my shelter and think good thoughts of you and the children ...
“Marshal!” Jack cried. “I can’t see! I’m blind. Oh, God, where’s that holy-roller. I thought he’d done come in to comfort me.”
“I’m right here, son. Are you a Saint?”
“I ain’t nothing,” Jack whispered.
... I send all my love over the miles, Sally, and pray that I shall see you soon.
Your loving and faithful husband, Smoke.
The barkeep leaned over and looked at Jack Lynch. “Yeah. He’s something, all right. He’s dead!”
Smoke posted his letter to Sally at the hotel and left before dawn the next morning, amid a light falling of snow. The big Appaloosa he rode was rough and shaggy-looking, with his winter coat still on. His pack horse was tough and had been patiently trained by Smoke.
Smoke rode for five miles before dismounting and building a small fire to prepare the coffee and bacon he’d resupplied back in the town. After he ate the bacon he sopped chunks of bread into the grease and finished off his meal with another cup of hot, strong coffee.
He camped for the night close to a little river, with snow-capped Marsh Peak to his east. The morning dawned pristine white, with several inches of new snow on the ground.
The country he was riding through was wild and high and beautiful, but already being touched by the hand of man. Smoke remembered when he rode through this country as a boy, years back, with the legendary mountain man, Preacher. The two of them could ride for days, sometimes weeks, without ever seeing a white man. No more.
For the most part, the Indians no long posed any threat. Only occasionally would a few young bucks bust loose from some reservation and cause trouble. The west was slowly being tamed. The outlaw Jesse James had been killed, shot in the back by a man he’d called friend, so Smoke had heard. Jesse had given Smoke a pistol back during the war, when Smoke was just a boy, trying to hold on to a hard-scrabble farm back in Missouri, while his daddy was off in the fighting. John Wesley Hardin was still in prison down in Texas. Earp had killed Curly Bill Brocius just last year. Sam Bass was rotting in the grave, as was Clay Allison. Mysterious Dave was still around, but Smoke had no quarrel with him. As far as he knew, Mysterious Dave was still down in Dodge City.
But someone had been sticking close to his backtrail for two days now, and Smoke was getting a little curious as to who he, or they, might be.
He thought he was in Wyoming, but he wasn’t sure. If he was, what was left of Fort Bridger would be off to the west some few miles. Smoke didn’t know if there was anything left of the old post and wasn’t that interested in checking it out.
But he would like to know who was trailing him. And why.
He was heading up toward the Green, to a little valley where a friend of his raised cattle, good cattle, and he’d written Smoke, telling him of the bulls he had for sale. The railroads had tracks all over the country now-well, almost—and getting the bulls back to his ranch would be no problem; a short drive on either end of a rail trip. Smoke could have taken the train most of the way, but with Sally gone back East to visit her family, the kids in school in Europe, Smoke had felt that old faithful tug of the High Lonesome and decided to saddle up and ride the distance.
He began seeing familiar landmarks and knew he was in the Cedar Mountains. In a couple of days, barring any difficulties, he’d cross the Blacks Fork and then pick up the Green River and follow it all the way to his friend’s ranch.
He found a little spring bubbling out of the earth, a spot of graze for the horses around it, and made an early camp. It was still cold, but the snow was gone-at least for the present-and Smoke had killed a couple of rabbits and needed to get them on a spit, cooking.
He stripped saddle and pack from the horses and watched them roll and snort and kick and shake, then settle down for a bit of grazing. Smoke gathered up twigs to get his fire going, then laid on heavier wood and made himself a spit. He got the rabbits cooking, filled his coffee pot with cold spring water right at the mouth and fixed his coffee in the blackened old pot.
The horses abruptly stopped grazing and lifted their heads, ears pricked up. Smoke picked up his rifle and eared the hammer back.
He heard the sounds of hooves, coming from the north. Then the call. “Halloo the fire! I’m friendly and I got my own grub so’s I won’t be eatin’ none of yourn. The twilight gets lonesome without conversation. All right to come in?”
“Come on,” Smoke called.
The man looked to be in his sixties—late sixties—but he was spry and Smoke figured him to be a man of the mountains. Just a tad too young to have been a part of the heyday of mountain men, but nevertheless a man who’d probably spent his life in the High Lonesome. Smoke had been halfway raised by mountain men, and he knew the mark it left on a man. He had it himself.
“Light and sit,” Smoke told him.
“Obliged. Let me tend to my animals and then I’ll join you by the fire. My good horse here got hisself all tangled up in some of that goddamned barbed wire a couple of days ago. I got to put some salve on the cuts. The devil’s own doin’s, that’s what that stuff is.”
A lot of cowboys called barbed wire the devil’s hatband. It was used, but many despised it.
“Name’s Lute,” the old man said.
“Pleased,” Smoke said.
Lute looked under his horse at him and smiled when Smoke did not offer his name. “I got to call you somethin’, boy.”
“I’ll answer to just about anything.”
Lute chuckled and carefully rubbed salve on the healing cuts inflicted by the devil’s hatband. “I come in from the west. Smelled your fire and cut north. I didn’t want you to think I was part of that bunch that’s comin’ up behind you.”
“I knew I was being followed.”
“I’m sure you did. You appear to be a mighty careful man. You got the mark on you, son. I think you’ve spent some time in the high country.”
“For a fact.”
“Thought so. Brands a man deep. The burn don’t never come out. I come into the Lonesome back in ’39. Me and old Preacher was partners for years.”
“I knew him. He still alive?”
“Yep. Gettin’ fat and sassy in his old age. Him and a bunch of other old mountain men got ’em a place up in the mountains. Them old coots just sit and rock and tell lies all the damn day. Mountain Men and old gunfighters. I might go there myself some day. When all the fire gets burned out in me and there ain’t nothin’ but ashes left.”
“This bunch that’s on my trail: how many?”
“ ’Ppears to be a goodly bunch, boy. I bellied down on a rise and watched ’em. They ridin’ like men with a mission. Hardcases, I’d say. You wanted by the law?”
“Not that I know of.” Smoke rummaged around and found another cup. He poured the scalding coffee and passed a cup to Lute, who had finished doctoring his horse and had sat down by the fire.
“Much obliged to you, boy.” He warmed his hands on the hot tin cup, waiting a moment for the coffee to become drinkable. His eyes took in Smoke’s guns. “Don’t see a rig like yourn too often,” he remarked.
“Not often. But it suits me.” Smoke turned the rabbits to even the cooking.
“Jensen,” Lute said the words softly. “I knowed it would come to me. Smoke Jensen.”