“Ol’ Preacher sort of jerked you up after your pa died back in ‘66 or ’67.”
“That he did. But he never mentioned anyone named Lute. I find that odd.”
“Had to change my name after I killed a man down in civilization back in ’55. I hate towns ... hate the people in towns. They fearful people, afraid to go it alone. Bullies live in towns, too. It was a bully I opened up with my good knife.”
Smoke smiled at Lute’s words. He didn’t agree with the man in the main, but part of what he said held some truth to it.
“They comin’ after you, boy,” Lute said. “Has to be you. Someone has hired them to kill you. I know you got enemies.”
“Then why don’t they come on and try to do the job?”
“Don’t know. You and me, we’ll ambush ‘em in the mornin’. How ’bout it?”
Smoke shook his head. “Lute, they may or may not be after me. I don’t know that for sure and neither do you. I’m tired of killing. I just want to live in peace.”
The mountain man snorted. “Right nice thought, but it ain’t never gonna happen. As long as you’re alive, they’s them that’ll be wantin’ to try you. I shouldn’t have to be tellin’ you this.” He stood up. “I’ll get my grub. Told you I wouldn’t eat yourn.”
The fire burned down to coals several times and each time one of the men would rouse from his blankets to place wood on the coals. The stars began to fade when Lute rolled out of his blankets and disappeared into the brush outside of camp to do his morning business. Smoke took the other side of the camp, then came back and put coffee on to boil and to lay slices of bacon in the frying pan.
“Smoke,” Lute called. “You’ll wanna see this.”
Smoke climbed up the small hill and stood by the old mountain man. About five miles away, below where they stood, Smoke could see a half dozen fires twinkling in the darkness. He took off his hat and scratched his head.
“It makes no sense. It’s as if they want me to see them; they want me to know they’re after me.”
“Maybe they do, boy. You seen bear-baitin’, ain’t you?”
“Yes. It’s a cruel sport. What about it?”
“Maybe they do want you to know, boy. Maybe it’s a game to them.”
Smoke thought about that. “A game? Lute, what do you know that you’re not telling me. And don’t hand me any more crap about you just happening up on my camp yesterday afternoon.”
“Let’s get some coffee and bacon. I’ll level with you.”
They ate and drank their coffee. Eating was serious business and they wouldn’t talk until the food was gone and they’d settled back for a pipe or a hand-rolled and a cup of coffee.
“I come up on a buddy of mine about two weeks ago over yonder-ways on Badwater Crick. He’d just ridden the steam engine as fer as he could from Dodge City. Whilst he was in Dodge he overheard some talk about this German Count or Baron or something like that, name of Frederick von Hausen. He’s some sort of world traveler and ad-venture seeker. He was in some saloon there and askin’ who was the meanest, toughest man in the west. Somebody piped up and said Smoke Jensen.”
He paused to stuff and light his pipe and Smoke said, “You’ve been looking for me since then?”
“I owe Preacher,” was Lute’s response.
“You knew who I was all along, then?”
“I was pretty sure it was you. Anyways, this Baron—whatever the hell that means-said he wanted to mount a party and come lookin’ for you. He said it would be great sport to hunt you down and see just how tough you really was.”
Smoke’s coffee was cold in the cup and forgotten. He set the cup down and rolled a cigarette. Finally he said, “Lute, you can’t hunt a man down for sport like some animal!”
“ ’Ppears he’s doin’ it, boy.”
“Didn’t the law try to stop him?”
“The law ain’t got nothin’ to do with it, Smoke. And them men with him ain’t talkin”bout it. He’s payin“em big money.”
Smoke had never heard of such a thing, and his face mirrored his inner confusion. “It’s got to be a joke, Lute.”
“No joke, boy. They aim to hunt you down, run you until you can’t go no further, and then kill you.”
Smoke lit his cigarette and inhaled. “Well ... I have no option but to go to the law with this.”
Lute smiled. “And tell them what, boy? You ain’t got no proof that anybody’s doin’ anything wrong. Think about it.”
Smoke took his handroll down to the butt and tossed it into the fire before he spoke. He had been hunted before, certainly, by men who were after him in the heat of anger or for promise of a false bounty, but never for sport. Smoke was genuinely tired of all the killing. The west was being tamed; why in the hell didn’t people leave him alone and let him live in peace?
“I’ll not play their game, Lute. I’ll head for the high lonesome; I know places there where not even you could find me. He can’t keep these men on the payroll forever.”
“He’s worth millions, Smoke. And his family’s worth more millions. He ain’t never worked. He’s a so-called professional ad-venturer; whatever the hell that means. And yeah, he can keep these randy ol’ boys on the payroll forever, I reckon. Son, the more you run, the more ex-citin’ the hunt is for them.”
“That’s the reason you suggested we ambush them.”
“That’s right. Might as well get the un-pleasantness done with.”
Despite the situation facing him, Smoke had to chuckle at the old man’s coldness. Preacher had been the same way; mountain men were not known for their kind, loving attitudes toward anyone who might be planning to do them harm.
Smoke sighed. “I just can’t do it, Lute. I just can’t ambush a group of people who, so far, at least, have done me no harm. Don’t you see that?”
Lute refilled his own cup, tossed the cold out of Smoke’s, and filled it up. “No, I don’t. But I ain’t settled like you, neither. Tell me, would you have acted this way ten year ago? Or even last year?”
Smoke shook his head. “Probably not. Lute, the most famous gunfighters in all the west have killed no more than twenty or thirty men-at the most. Do you have any idea of the number of graves I’ve got on my backtrail?”
“I ’magine it’s a right large number.”
“Enough to populate a fair-sized town, and then some. And I’m tired of all the blood. I’m tired of all the killing. I’m tired of the looks people give me. I’m tired of being the most notorious gun in all the so-called wild west. Now, I haven’t turned over a whole new leaf; I’ll fight if I’m pushed to it, Lute.” He told him of the young man back in the saloon. “I didn’t want to draw on that kid, Lute. But I saw that he was working himself up into a frenzy to drag iron on me. And I wasn’t going to die so that he could live. I just wish to God that people would leave me and Sally alone and let us raise our kids and our cattle and our horses. Goddamnit!” Smoke cursed and threw his tin cup, hot coffee and all, against a boulder. “Is that too much to ask of people?”
Old Lute smiled a sad moving of the lips. “You’ll do what you have to do when the time comes to do it, boy. I see that writ all over you.”
Smoke said nothing.
“And them down yonder by the fires,” the old mountain man said. “They think that you’re the fox and they’s the hounds. Oh, they’ll run you, boy. I can see that, too. You’re gonna give them a long, hard run for their money. But I know something that they don’t: you ain’t no fox. You’re half great gray timber wolf and half puma. With some grizzly bar tossed in for spice. And when you get your fill of runnin‘, and turn to face them, you gonna chill ’em to the bone when you throw back your head and howl to the mountains.”
He was a man who had never failed at anything. No matter what the cost, no matter the misery caused or the price in human life, he always succeeded.
Frederick von Hausen had so much money not even he knew the total of his wealth. The money he was paying the men who rode with him on this quest was an enormous sum to them, to von Hausen it didn’t even amount to petty cash.
He was a handsome man; not even his constant sneer could take away from that. Tall and blond and muscular, he was highly educated at all the right schools in Europe. He was an expert swordsman, an expert shot with rifle or pistol. He wore a dueling scar on his cheek like a badge of honor.
Frederick stood by the fire on this cold morning and looked toward the north. This Smoke Jensen person was up there, not more than four or five miles away. Hausen smiled. All that claptrap and big scene back in that saloon in Dodge City had been staged for the benefit of others. Hausen had been planning this hunt for months. He had a small fortune in bets riding on his ability to hunt down and kill Jensen. He rubbed his hands together. He was looking forward to this.
Frederick von Hausen looked for his companions; they were just now rising stiffly from their blankets and moving around in their tents. The cook had been the first one up, and was now preparing breakfast, having first made coffee, a strong bitter brew that was not to von Hausen’s liking. But the twenty-odd men he’d hired along the way seemed to enjoy the black poisonous brew.
The first to leave their tent was von Hausen’s traveling companion, Marlene Ulbrich. Just as haughty and almost as rich as von Hausen, Marlene was blonde and beautiful and just as bloodthirsty as von Hausen. Gunter Balke and his fiancée, Maria Guhl, were the next ones up and moving about. They were followed by Hans Brodermann and his wife, Andrea. All reasonably young, in their early thirties, and all enormously wealthy, they all shared something else in common: they were easily bored, spoiled to the core, and considered everyone else on the face of the earth to be their inferior.
They had slaughtered the earth’s animals in every country that would allow them entry—and that was most. If a day’s hunt proved unproductive, they would shoot dogs or cats or people, if they felt they could get away with the latter bloodletting. And they always had before.
They were all dressed properly for the hunt and carried the most expensive weapons that could be handmade for them. And they all had spent weeks gathering the scum of the earth around them.
The twenty-odd men—odd in more ways than one—gathered in a quiet circle around the big fire, staying away from the aristocracy, as they had been instructed to do.
“How long do they figure on stretchin’ this thing out?” Al Hayre asked, after noisily slurping at his coffee.
“They plan on makin’ a springtime e-vent of it,” Leo Grant told him.
“I ain’t yet figured out just what it is we’re supposed to do,” Utah Bob said.
“Prod Jensen ‘til he makes a fight of it,” Larry Kelly told him. “But we’ll stay back, out of range, if we can, ’til we push him clear into the Rockies.”
“These people, do they not know Smoke’s reputation?” Angel Cortez asked in soft tones.
“Jensen’s reputation don’t spell crap to them or to me,” Tom Ritter said. “I don’t believe nothin’ I ever heard about that man. I think most of it is lies.”
Pat Gilman looked across the dancing flames at Tom. “There ain’t none of it lies, Tom. Smoke Jensen’s a he-coon from ’way back. I seen some of his graveyards; and they’s plenty more that I ain’t seen.”
Tom Ritter said a very ugly word.
John T. Matthey smiled. “You boys is all from Texas and Kansas and Arizona and New Mexico way. Me, I’m from Montana, like Montana Jess there. Pat there is from Colorado. He knows about Jensen, just like Utah Red do. Let me tell you this: they’s gonna be some of us ain’t gonna come back from this foolishness. Maybe a lot of us ain’t comin’ back. Them uppity, high-falutin’ folk over yonder, them barons and counts and princes and their snooty women think this is gonna be a real fun game. It ain’t gonna be no such of a thing. Right now Jensen is tryin’ to figure out why we’re trackin’ him close. Today, tomorrow, the next day, he’ll try to lose us. When we keep on comin‘, he’s gonna turn mean. And boys, that is one man who was born with the bark on. That man has faced six, eight, ten men eyeball to eyeball and tooken lead and kept on his boots. When the gunsmoke cleared, Smoke Jensen was still standin’. Now, I ain’t got no use for him; he’s kilt several of my pards. But I got respect for him. And you boys better have some respect for him, too.”
Von Hausen had been listening. He said, “Are you afraid of this penny-ante gunslinger, Mr. Matthey?”
“There ain’t nothin’ penny-ante about Jensen, Mr. Hausen. Wild Bill Hickok said Smoke Jensen was the fastest gun in all the west. Earp said he’d sooner be locked in a room full of mountain lions than face Jensen. Sam Bass was a pard of mine. He was offered thousands of dollars to kill Jensen. He threw the money back in the man’s face. Billy the Kid said Smoke Jensen was like a God. I could go on and on namin’ gunfighters who had better sense than brace Smoke Jensen. You don’t know the man ... I do. I’ve seen him work ... you haven’t. Now, you payin’ us top wages to track and corner him. And I tooken your money and when I do that I ride for the brand. But don’t none of you lowrate Jensen. That would be a fatal mistake.”
“You say you know him,” Hans said, strolling up. “What are his weak spots?”