Smoke had had his fun, but he wasn’t going to play games with skilled gunhandlers like John T. and those of the original bunch. He pulled his rifle to his shoulder and blew Tom Ritter out of the saddle. The outlaw was cooling meat when he hit the ground and went slowly tumbling down the slope to the creek.
“Damn you, Jensen!” John Flagg screamed, struggled to get his horse under control and finally managing to jerk his .45 out of leather.
Smoke shot him between the eyes.
John Flagg’s horse bolted and ran right over Maria, knocking the woman over the side of the slope. She rolled and tumbled down the bank and hit the creek just as von Hausen was getting to his feet. She hit him squarely across the knees and both of them went under, flailing and waving their arms and slipping and sliding on the slick rocks in the creek.
Smoke lit another stick of dynamite and dropped it to the trail below him. Then he cut out at a fast run through the timber.
The charge blew and knocked Utah Red off his horse. The hired gun went rolling down the slope and slammed into von Hausen and Maria just as they were crawling out of the creek. They returned to the creek.
Slick Finger Bob was tossed out of the saddle and landed on his belly on the trail. He had just enough wind left in him to roll frantically off the trail to avoid having his head smashed by the hooves of the panicked horses. He felt himself going over the edge and grabbed at an ankle. Marlene’s ankle. The two of them went over the side of the steep embankment and began the fast tumble down.
Von Hausen had just enough wind left him to crawl up the bank of the creek. He almost made it. Slick Finger Bob and Marlene banged into him and knocked him clear to the other side of the fast-rushing mountain stream. Von Hausen’s head hit a rock and he was out.
The mountain trail grew quiet. John T. peeped around a tree trunk and took in the sight before him. Two men were down and dead as a hammer. Tom Ritter lay on his belly and John Flagg was on his back, a hole right between his eyes. One Eye looked dead; then John T. saw his fingers began to twitch. A whole bunch of people appeared to be in the crick below, squallin’ and bellerin’ and cussin’ and hollerin’ for help. John T. couldn’t see Ed Clay nowheres. Dick Dorman had been tossed from his horse and landed on his bad ankle. He had passed out from the pain.
John T. motioned toward Cat Brown to take the south end of the trail while he climbed the bank on the north end. It only took a couple of minutes for them to see that Jensen was gone.
Marlene was crawled up the slope, her eyes wild with hate and fury, her mouth working overtime, spewing out every cuss word she knew in several languages. She was mud from head to boots.
John T. looked around and finally found his horse and tied a rope to the saddlehorn, dangling the other end down to the creek. “Tie it around his majesty’s shoulders,” John T. called. “We’ll pull him up.”
“What about me!” Maria shrieked.
“Drag your own ass up here,” John T. muttered, “We’ll git to you,” he hollered. “Just take it easy.”
Von Hausen was hauled up the slope. He lost his boots and his pants during the salvage effort.
Slick Finger Bob was crawling up the slope, pushing Maria ahead of him.
“Get your hands off my backside!” she screamed at him.
“Well, goddamnit, lady, what else am I gonna push against?”
“Don’t touch me!”
“All right,” Slick Finger said, and removed his hands and got out of the way.
Maria hollered all the way back down.
Smoke put the muzzle of a .44 against Ed Clay’s head. “I’ll give you a choice, partner,” Smoke told him. “Leave or die. What’s it going to be?”
“You give me a chance, Mister Jensen, and I’m gone. I won’t join up with the others. You don’t have to give me a horse, a gun, or nothin’. Just let me leave and you’ll never see me again.”
“Head straight east,” Smoke told him. “There’s a settlement on the Clear. If I see you in these mountains, I’ll kill you.”
“The only people that’s gonna see me from now on is my momma and daddy, back in Nebraska.”
Ed Clay got gone. Smoke doubted he’d return to Nebraska, but he also felt he’d never see the man again.
Smoke tossed Andrea into the saddle, tied her hands, and swung aboard his Appaloosa. He headed north, deeper into the Bighorns.
“Found Ed’s horse,” Henry Barton said. “But there ain’t a sign of Ed.”
The camp looked like a field hospital. Dick Dorman and von Hausen were stretched out side by side. Maria was off to one side, badly shaken and bruised up from her trips to the creek. Utah Red had hurt his leg on the way down the slope and was bitching and moaning. Slick Finger Bob had a cut on his face and a knot on one knee. Sandy was still addled and acting goofy from his head impacting against a rock. One Eye had a egg-sized lump on his noggin from Smoke’s thrown rock.
Marlene finally got von Hausen awake and was pouring hot soup down his throat. Roy Drum had retrieved von Hausen’s boots and pants, falling into the creek himself. The pith helmet was ruined, cracked wide open.
Gunter knelt down beside von Hausen. “Two dead,” he told him. “Ed Clay’s missing. Several of the men are injured, but not seriously.”
Von Hausen coughed up creek water. “The spirit of the men?” he questioned.
“As long as we keep paying them, they’ll continue.”
“We’ll continue,” von Hausen said. “As long as he has Andrea, we really have no choice, now, do we?”
Cat Brown rode back in and swung down. “I found Jensen’s tracks. He’s headin’ straight north. The woman’s still with him.”
“And leaving tracks a fool could follow,” von Hausen said, not putting it as a question.
“That’s right, boss.”
“We’ll rest here and push on at first light.”
Marlene glanced at him. There was a grimness in his voice that she had never heard before. She wondered what it meant.
“When are you going to turn me loose?” Andrea asked.
Supper was over, she had the rope around her waist, the knots so tight she had broken off her nails trying to loosen them—to no avail.
“When the hunt is over,” Smoke told her.
“You mean, after you’ve killed them all.”
“I didn’t kill that fellow this morning, now, did I?”
“I could talk to Frederick. I’m sure he would cease immediately once he sees I am safe and unhurt.”
“Frederick is mine,” Smoke told her. “I’m going to kick his face in.”
“You!” she said mockingly. “Frederick will destroy you. He is a skilled pugilist.”
“I’ve seen him fight two men at once and whip them both.”
“Good for him. In a ring?”
“Certainly. One of Frederick’s opponents would tire and the other would come in.”
“Rules to it, hey?”
“But of course.”
“I’ll have to say a little prayer before bed tonight that when we do lock horns, Frederick doesn’t beat me up too bad.”
“Now you’re being sarcastic.”
“Go to sleep, your ladyship. Tomorrow is going to be very exciting.”
Sandy Beecher heard a rustling behind him. He left the saddle and stared hard at the thick brush. The mid-morning was cloudy and cool, with the skies looking like rain. The bushes did not move again.
For the first time he noticed the thin vine that stretched across the trail. From ground level, he could see that it was attached to the bush that had moved. Sandy got to thinking on that. Now if the vine was attached to the bush, that meant that whoever jerked on it was...
“Oh, hell,” he muttered. “Behind me.”
“That’s right,” Smoke whispered. “You’re a mighty young man to die.”
“Do I have a choice?”
“You might. That’s up to you.”
“The others are fanned out all over this mountain, lookin’ for you. You let me get back on my horse, and I’m gone. That’s a promise.”
“Why should I believe you?”
“ ’Cause I’m tellin’ you the truth. Where’s Ed Clay?”
“If he’s not dead on the trail, he told me he was heading back to Nebraska.”
“That’s him. Me and him was pards. You let me go and you’ll never see me no more, Mister Jensen. Never.”
“Tell me about the others.”
“They’re bad ones. They got big money in their eyes. I got me a couple hundred dollars from that Baron or whatever he is, and that’s enough to get me back to Missouri.”
“That your home state?”
“Sure is! About thirty miles east of Springfield.”
“I was born not far from there.”
“You don’t say? You know the Blanchard’s?”
“Doc Blanchard tended to my ma when she was sick.”
“Well, I’ll just be damned. He’s my momma’s brother.”
“He still alive?”
“Was when I left, about five year ago.”
“Tell him Emmett Jensen’s youngest boy said howdy.”
“I’ll sure do it. Smoke?”
“Yes. Them others’ll kill you if you get careless. I’ve stole from time to time, but I ain’t never killed nobody.”
“I hope you never do. Take off.”
“You want my guns?”
Smoke watched him leave, and true to his word, Sandy headed south without so much as looking back.
Smoke stood up and began stalking those who hunted him. Henry Barton sat his gray and studied the stillness of the timber. He wished Jensen would step out and challenge him. He’d like to be the man who killed Smoke Jensen. He could write his own ticket after he done that.
“Looking for me,” the voice came from off to his left.
Henry knew he’d been suckered. He was right-handed, and Smoke had studied him, waiting for just the right moment. If he drew now, he’d be shooting across his body. “Jensen?”
“Do I get to turn my horse?”
Smoke chuckled. “Why sure you do.”
Henry said to hell with it and jerked iron. Smoke’s .44-40 roared and Henry was knocked from the saddle, the slug taking him just under his rib cage and blowing out the other side.
Terry Smith came galloping up the mountains trail, hollering for his buddy. He reined up when he saw the gray, standing riderless in the timber.
“Here I am,” Smoke called.
Terry cussed, wheeled his horse and lifted his six-shooter. Smoke blasted him out of the saddle, the big slug taking him in the center of his chest.
Smoke faded back into the brush on the mountain and jogged to a small knoll set in the middle of the timber. He punched two more rounds into his rifle and eared the hammer back, waiting.
A yell came to him, faint but understandable. “This here’s Dick Dorman, Jensen. Joe Elliot’s with me. We’re gone. You hear me, Jensen. I got a broke ankle and Joe’s shoulder is busted and swole up. We’re out of it and gone.”
“This ain’t no trick, Jensen,” Joe hollered. “We’re headin’ back to the Hole. Just let us pass and you won’t hear no more from us.”
Two rifles crashed. Smoke heard the sounds of bodies falling to the earth.
“Good shooting, darling,” von Hausen said.
“And the same to you, sweet,” Marlene said.
Smoke shook his head. Fine people to work for, he thought. Very caring about the hired help.
Montana Jess, Gil Webb, John T., Cat Brown, and Utah Red and Roy Drum were by now old hands at chasing Smoke. None of them were about to expose themselves and enter those dark woods. But the two left of the men from the Hole just weren’t that smart. Slick Finger Bob thought he was slicker than he was. He slipped into the timber unseen, so he thought. It was his last thought.
Smoke drilled him at two hundred yards, the slug punching right through Slick Finger Bob’s head.
“I’m a-gonna tear both your eyes out, Jensen!” One Eye called. “Then I’m gonna let you stagger around blind a couple hours ’fore I shoot you.”
What a nice fellow, Smoke thought. I wonder what he does for an encore?
“Jensen!” he hollered. “You’re surrounded. You can’t get away. Step on out here and fight me.”
Smoke picked up a rock and tossed it to his right. It thudded to the ground and One Eye fired. Smoke put three fast rounds in the area of the gunsmoke. One Eye staggered out, both hands holding his belly. He grunted in pain and slumped to the earth. He was still on his knees when Smoke backed out and disappeared into the lushness of the timber.
John T. sighed. “Anybody seen Sandy?”
“Not since breakfast,” Montana told him.