“Where are we?” von Hausen asked, walking up to the men.
“Wyoming,” Roy Drum told him. “Just a few miles south of the Montana line. ‘Bout twenty miles south of us, on the Shoshone River, they’s a little settlement. It ain’t got a name. ’Least it didn’t have last time I was through there.”
“Is there a railroad there?” Gunter asked. “We have to get east as quickly as possible.”
“Don’t know. But I’d fight shy of railroads, was I you,” Roy told him. “I got me a good strong hunch that the word’s done gone out on us. The law’ll be lookin’ hard at folks buyin’ train tickets.”
“That doesn’t leave us many options, then, does it?” von Hausen asked.
“We done run out of options,” Gil Webb said. “Slap dab out of them. All but one.”
“And that one is? ...” Andrea asked, a haughty note in her voice.
“We run, lady,” John T. said. He was tying his bedroll in place behind his saddle. “We ride hard for Dodge, you folks pay us off, and then we all scatter like leaves in the wind. Jensen’s comin’, lady. Comin’ hard. And he’s mad. Killin’ mad. He’s snarlin’ like a big lobo wolf, sniffin’ the ground and stayin’ on our scent. We run.”
“You ever seen a buffalo wolf, lady?” Roy Drum asked. “No. ‘Course you hadn’t. They ’bout all gone now. Folks killed them out. Big one would weigh a hundred an’ fifty to hundred an’ seventy five pounds. One—just
—could bring down a buffler. Jump on its back and kill it. That’s what Smoke Jensen is, lady. Are we afraid of him? No. But only a fool don’t respect him. Now if you folks don’t mind, get them hosses of yourn saddled and let’s go. Like right now!”
“We have to have supplies,” von Hausen said. “We’ll travel to that settlement you talked about.”
Roy opened his mouth to argue. John T. cut him off. “We’re out of coffee, Roy. We lost several pack horses back yonder in that meadow. We ain’t got no bacon, no flour, no beans. We’ll head for the settlement.”
“All right!” Drum said savagely. “Then damnit, let’s ride.”
They managed to get Ray Harvey on his horse. His broken leg was swollen badly and it was all he could do to keep from screaming out in pain.
“We got to leave you when we get to the settlement, Ray,” John T. said. “You got to get some doctorin’ on that leg ’fore gangrene sets in and you die. We’ll make sure you get your money. And that’s a promise.”
That was a lie and both men knew it. Ray’s leg was stinking from infection. Gangrene had already set in and his blood was poisoned by it.
The party provisioned at the trading post and pulled out that same day, leaving Ray Harvey in the barn on some hay. Jerry Watkins took all the man’s money. So much for honor among thieves. The settlement had no doctor. Smoke rode in the next day, early, and found Harvey nearly gone.
“Shoot me, Jensen!” the hired gun begged. “Put me out of my misery. I can’t stand the pain no more.”
Smoke shook his head. “I won’t do that, but I will buy you a case of whiskey. You can die drunk if you like.”
“I’d appreciate it. That’ll help a lot. They’ve gone for Dodge, Jensen. You ain’t but about a day behind them. They stole my money and left me here to die. I don’t figure I owe none of them a damn thing.”
Smoke bought a case of whiskey and arranged with the livery owner to let Harvey stay there until he died. Which was not going to be long. His leg had turned black and vivid streaks of infection were shooting out from the poisoned leg.
Smoke rested his horses, feeding them all the grain they wanted. He had a bath and a haircut and a shave and had his clothing washed and ironed. He left his packhorse, taking only a few things he could carry in his saddlebags and rolled up behind his saddle.
At dawn, he swung up into the saddle. “Let’s go, boy,” he told his big Appaloosa. The horse stepped out eagerly, knowing the hunt was on.
The livery owner watched Smoke ride out in the darkness. He told a buddy, “I’d not want that man after me. They’ll be hell to pay when he catches up with them folks that wronged him.”
“I hope he gut-shoots Watkins,” Harvey said, his words slurry from the whiskey.
Roy Drum had cut south from the small settlement, and Smoke knew then the route he was taking. They would angle southeast and cross the North Platte at that little town just east of Emigrant Gap. From there, they would touch the corner of Colorado then turn due south toward Dodge.
“Looks like I don’t buy any bulls this summer,” Smoke told his horse.
Once von Hausen and party crossed the Greybull, they had about fifty or sixty miles of nothing until they hit the north/south stagecoach road. Smoke remembered a trading post—that by now might be a settlement of sorts-on the old Bridger Trail, at the confluence of Fifteen Mile Creek and the Big Horn River. They would have to stop there—the ladies would want that—and resupply. Sixteen or seventeen people went through a lot of groceries on the trail. Then too, there was another point to consider: from the trading post to the next settlement, that being on the North Platte, there was about a hundred miles of nothing.
Smoke frowned as he rode. If they stayed on the route that he, himself would take, it would put John T. Matthey about twenty miles south of the Hole-In-The-Wall. John T. just might know some pretty salty ol’ boys who would like to pick up a few bucks—namely by killing one Smoke Jensen.
It was something to keep in his mind.
Von Hausen and party, with Roy Drum at the point, crossed the Greybull and pressed on. Some of the swelling in Jerry Watkins’ face had gone down, but he still looked like someone had taken an icepick to his face. Many of the birdshot had been picked out; the rest he would carry for the rest of his life. Which, with Smoke Jensen hard on them, might turn out to be very short.
Tom Ritter’s left arm had to be carried in a sling, due to a .44 slug that had passed right through his shoulder. Pat Gilman had been wounded in the hip. He could ride, but his face was pale and his lips were tight against the pain. Paul Melham’s left arm was out of commission; like Tom, he toted that arm in a sling.
It was a sad-looking bunch that rode toward the Big Horn.
“You know any boys at the Hole, John T.?” Pat asked, riding alongside the man. They were walking their horses to save them.
“Could be. I been thinkin’ on it. That’s a good hundred miles down the trail. But I don’t know how many of them would want to tangle with Smoke Jensen.”
“If we could just slow him up some ...”
“Yeah. I know. Jensen gave us more breaks during this ... craziness than I figured he would. That’s over now. He sees us, anywhere, anytime, he’s probably gonna drag iron. For a fact, he ain’t gonna give us no more breaks.”
“I give up on tryin’ to ambush that feller. Seems like he can smell a set-up.”
“He was raised up by mountain men. Preacher, in particular. He ain’t got no better honker on him than we do; but he senses danger. Preacher schooled him good.”
“We’re just gonna have to make up our minds to stand and face him, John T.”
“I been thinkin’ on that, too.”
“You best keep in mind that if we do that, we’re gonna take some lead. Jensen ain’t gonna just step out in the street and face fifteen of us. He’s the farthest thing from a fool. He faced them old boys at that silver camp—eighteen or so of them—and he rode off after the dust settled. And he wasn’t nothin’ but a kid hisself. He’s a ring-tailed-tooter, Pat.”
“Sounds like you sort of like the man, John T.”
“Oh, I do, in a way. I ain’t really got nothin’ agin him. I’m just gonna kill him, that’s all. How’s your hip?”
“Hurts bad. I’m gonna pull out at the settlement on the river. Maybe I’ll get lucky with Jensen.”
A couple of days later, when they swung down from the dusty saddles at the settlement on the Big Horn, Valdes pulled his rifle from the boot and said, “No more of this for me. I am staying here and settling this affair once and for all. I am weary of running like a frightened child.”
“Count me in on that, too,” Jerry Watkins mumbled through still-swollen lips. “I got a real personal score to settle with him.”
“I can’t ride no more,” Gilman said. “I was plannin’ on pullin’ the pin here anyways.”
The others just looked at the men and shook their heads. John T. said, “I wish you boys would think on that some. I’m goin’ to head for the Hole later on and round up some more boys.”
Valdes shook his head. “No. This is as far as I run.” He handed von Hausen a slip of paper. “That is my mother’s name and address in Mexico. You will see that she gets my share of the money, por favor?”
Von Hausen nodded his head. “Yes, I will, Valdes. I give you my word on that.”
“This is adios, then.” He solemnly shook hands with everybody and led his horse to the stable.
“See you, boys,” Pat said, meeting the eyes of the men and the women. The women seemed indifferent about the whole matter. Then limped off, following the Mexican gunslick.
“I reckon that about sums it up,” Jerry mumbled, and followed Pat and Valdes.
“We’ll resupply and immediately move on,” von Hausen said. “We can’t afford the luxury of bathing and grooming. Let’s buy what we need and get out!”
Valdes, Jerry, and Pat watched the party ride out of town from a table by the window in a saloon. Pat had not sought the advice of the local doctor about the festering wound in his hip, because he didn’t figure he had much longer to live anyway.
He took out a pen and started laboriously printing on a piece of paper he bummed from the bartender, who was nervous about the men being in his place of business. He had heard about von Hausen—news traveled swiftly in the west—and wanted no part of Smoke Jen—sen.
“What are you doin’?” Jerry asked.
“Makin’ out my last will and testament,” the gun-for-hire said. “Then I’m gonna give it to that lawyer acrost the street.”
“I didn’t know you had anybody to leave nothin’ to.”
“I don’t. I’m leavin’ it to my horse.”
“Yep. He’s a good’un. I ain’t worth a damn; but that shouldn’t be no reflection on my horse. I’m gonna see to it that he lives out the rest of his days eatin’ and gettin’ fat and bein’ lazy.”
“That ain’t a bad idea,” Jerry said. “Do it for my hoss, too. How about you, Valdes?”
“I don’t give a damn what happens to my horse,” he said sullenly. “And how do you know we’re not gonna ride out of this dismal place?”
“ ’Cause the telegraph down the road says Smoke Jensen is about a half a day behind you boys,” a rancher spoke from a couple of tables over. “That’s why. I’ll see to it that you boys’ horses are put out to pasture and live a good life, if you want me to. I admire a man who takes care of his horse.”
“Thanks,” Pat said.
The rancher looked at Valdes. “You can go to hell.”
Valdes started to get up from the table. He stopped halfway out at the sound of several hammers being eared back. Four of the rancher’s hands stood at the bar, six-guns in their hands.
“Sit down,” one told him. “Way I figure it, you got maybe six or eight hours to live—at the most. You might as well enjoy that time. ’Sides, I don’t want to miss this fight.”
Valdes sat, being very careful to keep both his hands on the table.
“I’ll take care of your horse, too, Mex,” the rancher told him. “ ’Cause I like horses.”
“You serve up food in this place?” Jerry said.
“Got a stew that’s good,” the barkeep told him.
“That’ll suit me just fine,” Pat said. “Then I’m gonna take me a snooze under that tree yonder.” He pointed. “I reckon I’d better get in the habit of bein’ stretched out,” he added drily.
The day wore on with its usual never-deviating pace. But to the three hired guns in the saloon, time seemed to drag. The saloon filled as word spread around the area. Buck-boards and wagons rattled into town, carrying entire families ; many had packed box suppers. This was the biggest thing to happen in the community since the outhouse behind the church collapsed and dumped the minister into the pit. Took twelve men half the day to haul him out. Folks never dreamed that a man of the cloth would know all those bad words.