“Nope. I’m a plains and desert man, myself. That map we looked at the other day showed some hellacious mountains just a few miles north of here.”
“Yeah. John T. and Utah and them other high-country boys is gonna have to take the point from here on out. I ain’t got no idea where we are.”
John T. sat his saddle and looked down at the clear tracks Smoke was leaving. His smile held no humor. “He’s leadin’ us straight into the wilderness. I got a hunch he’s gonna take us into the big canyon country.”
“What is that?” Gunter asked.
“A damn good place to stay out of,” John T. told him. “Smoke was raised by mountain men, so he’ll know the High Lonesome mighty well.”
“The what?” Andrea asked.
“A place where it’s hotter than hell and colder than ice. Where the winds blow all the time and they don’t never blow. Places were you can crawl to the edge and look down for more ’un five thousand feet-straight down.” (Only a slight exaggeration). “Wild lost rivers that don’t go nowhere.” (Actually they do). “They’s still Injuns in there that ain’t never seen a white man.” (Probably true). “Unless it was a mountain man. Like Smoke Jensen.”
“Has it been explored?” Gunter asked.
“Rivers been traveled on some. Mountain men and Injuns know it. And smoke Jensen.”
“How big is this place?” von Hausen asked.
“Don’t nobody know for sure. If that’s where Jensen is takin’ us, he’ll find a good spot to stash his horses and start to give us pure-dee hell. Jim Bridger country. It’s wild, people, and it gets wilder the further north you go. Any of you ever seen a lightnin’ storm in the high-up? They’re terrible. You claim to have studied him, von Hausen; but I bet you got most of your information from gossip and from them damn Penny Dreadful books. The same with you boys from the plains and the flats. So I’ll tell you what Jensen is and ain’t.
“He’s a mountain man. He knows ‘em, he ain’t scared of ’em, and he can climb ’em. He’s at home in the mountains. And when he makes his stand, it’ll be in the mountains.”
John T. paused to roll a cigarette and light up. “You see, people, this is just a game to him right now. He’s havin’ fun with us. If he was takin’ this serious, why they’d be some of us layin’ back yonder on the trail, dead from ambush. You real sure you want to go on with this so-called sporting e-vent, von Hausen?”
“Of course, I do!”
“Mount up and let’s go,” von Hausen said.
Smoke crossed and recrossed the Fontenelle several times, knowing that would slow up those behind him. He could have taken a much easier route, but he didn’t want to make things easy for his pursuers. He was hoping-knowing it was a slim chance-that if he took them over the roughest terrain he could find, they might decide to call off the chase.
He was going to ride straight north, up through the Salt River Range, have some fun with them up in Jim Bridger country-maybe get them good and lost for a time-and then head up the Snake Range, through the Teton Range, and then over the Divide. If they were still after him, and had proved hostile, there he would make his stand.
He had considered talking to the German, but decided that probably wouldn’t do a bit of good. He had thought about leaving them a note, stuck to a tree, warning them off. But von Hausen might decide that was a challenge and really put on the pressure. Smoke had never been in any situation quite like this one and didn’t really know how to handle it.
His rancher friend was not expecting him—Smoke had told him he’d be up sometime in the spring or summer-so his friend would not be worried about him.
“Hell of a mess,” Smoke muttered, and headed north.
“This is the goddamnest country I ever seen in my life,”
What is now Yellowstone National Park Marty Boswell griped. “The sun’s out now and it’s warm; tonight it’ll be so damned cold a body’s gotta jump up and down to keep his feet from freezin’.”
“At least Jensen’s just as colds,” Paul Melham said.
“No, he ain‘t,” John T. corrected. “He’s used to it and come prepared. He can build him a lean-to and a soft bed outta sweet smellin’ boughs near ’bouts as fast as you boys can unsaddle your horse.”
“Why do you constantly try to discourage the men?” Marlene asked him.
“I ain’t tryin’ to discourage ‘em. I just want the soft ones to quit and get long gone away from me ’fore we tangle with Jensen. I don’t want nobody but hardcases with me when that hombre decides to fight.”
“Am I a hardcase, John T.?” she asked teasingly.
“You-all are payin’ the bulldog, your ladyship. I just don’t want no little puppy dogs around me when push comes to shove.”
“What do you have against Smoke Jensen, John T.?”
“I don’t like him. He’s too damn high and mighty to suit me. Somebody needs to slap him down a time or two.”
“And you think you’re that man?”
“I might be. I do think that all of us-if we get real lucky and work real careful-can put an end to Smoke Jensen.”
“Oh, I assure you, John T., that we are going to most definitely do that. Frederick has never failed-
He ain’t never run up on the likes of Smoke Jensen, neither, John T. thought, but didn’t put it into words.
Smoke figured he was at least two full days ahead of his hunters, and perhaps even three. He was going to have to re-supply, and discard some gear while adding things more practical if this game turned deadly, as he feared it would.
He knew of a tiny town located on the west side of the Salt River Range, not more than three or four miles from the Idaho border. He’d head there, but he’d do so carefully, and try to lose his pursuers—at least for a time.
Smoke headed out and put Salt River Pass behind him, then he cut west and stayed on the east side of the Salt River, leaving plenty of tracks. He rode across a rocky flat, then stopped and tore a blanket up and tied squares of cloth over his horses’ hooves so they would not scar the rock, then doubled back to the river and stayed in it, as best he could, for several miles. He found another rocky flat and exited the river there.
He swung down from the saddle and spent some time working out his tracks. Satisfied, he mounted up and headed for the settlement. He had probably gained another day; if he was lucky, maybe two days.
He spent a night in a cold camp, not wanting to chance a fire, on the off chance his hunters had gained on him, and Smoke was in no mood for nonsense when he rode into the tiny town the next day, at mid-morning.
He told the man at the livery to rub his horses down good and give them all the grain they wanted to eat.
“Payable in ad-vance,” the man said sourly.
Smoke looked at him for a moment through the coldest, most dangerous eyes the man had ever seen.
“It’s for ever’body, mister,” he spoke gently. “Boss’s orders. I just work here.”
Smoke smiled and handed the man some coins, including a little extra. “Have yourself a drink on me at day’s end.”
“I’ll do it,” the man said with a returning smile. “Thanks. They’s beds over the saloon or you’re welcome to bed down here. Beth’s is our only cafe and she serves up some pretty good grub.”
“I’ll check it out. Much obliged.”
“Ain’t I seen you before, mister?”
“Never been here before in my life.”
“Shore looks familiar,” the man muttered, when Smoke had walked away. Then he stood still as a post as recognition struck him. “Good God!” he said. “And I got lippy with
Smoke checked out the rooms over the saloon, saw fleas and various other crawling and hopping creatures on the dirty sheets, and decided he would sleep in the loft of the barn. He’d always liked the smell of hay.
“You mighty goddamn particular,” the combination barkeep and desk clerk told him.
That did it. Smoke grabbed the man by the shirt, picked him up about a foot off the floor, and pinned him to the wall. “Would it too much of a problem for you to be civil?”
“You better put me down, mister. Tom Lilly runs this town, and he’s a personal friend of mine.”
“And you’ll run tell him about this little incident and he’ll do your fighting for you, right?”
“Something like that. And he’ll clean your plow, drifter.”
Smoke dragged him to the landing and threw him down the stairs. “Then go tell him, you weasel. I’ll be having a drink at the bar. From the good bottle.”
The man scrambled to his feet and ran out the front door. Smoke walked down the steps, rummaged around behind the bar until he found the good bottle of whiskey, and poured himself a drink. Although not much of a drinking man, the whiskey was smooth and felt good going down.
He fixed himself a sandwich from the fresh-laid out lunch selection and poured a cup of coffee, then walked to a table in the back of the room. He took off his coat and sat down. Slipping the hammer-thong from his Colts was something he did the instant his boots touched ground out of the stirrups.
The front door opened and the lippy barkeep entered, followed by a huge bear of a man.
“There he is,” the barkeep said, pointing Smoke out. Then he ran back behind the bar. “And that’ll be fifty cents for that drink of good whiskey.”
“Money’s on the bar,” Smoke told him.
The man lumbered over, stopping a few feet from the table. The floor had trembled as he moved. Smoke figured him to be about six feet six inches tall and weighing maybe two hundred and seventy-five pounds.
“My name’s Tom Lilly,” the big man rumbled.
Smoke took a bite from his sandwich and said nothing.
“Are you deef!” Lilly hollered.
“I will be if you keep shouting,” Smoke told him. “Quiet down, will you?”
The man looked shocked. “You really tellin’ me what to do, cowboy?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am. And you smell bad, too. Step back, before your breath contaminates the cheese.”
Tom was so shocked he was momentarily speechless. Nobody ever spoke to him in such a manner. A few had challenged him, years back, and he had broken their heads, their backs, or just simply and quickly stomped them to death. He had run this town with an iron hand-or fist—for several years; now this drifter shows up and starts with the mouth.
Finally Tom found his voice. “You better enjoy that sandwich, drifter. ’Cause it’s gonna be the last thing you’ll ever eat except my fist.”
Smoke shoved the square table with all his strength, one sharp corner catching Tom in the thigh and pushing through the cloth of the big man’s trousers, tearing a gouge in his leg. Tom screamed in pain and grabbed at his bleeding leg just as Smoke came around the table, picking up a sturdy chair during his brief journey. Smoke brought the chair down on Tom’s head, driving the man to his knees and destroying the chair. Using what was left of the chair back as a club, Smoke proceeded to rain blows on the bully, the wood ringing like a blacksmith’s hammer as Smoke bounced it against Tom’s head.
A crowd began to gather, both inside the saloon and on the boardwalk in front.
When Smoke had beaten the man unconscious, he tossed the club to the floor and dragged Tom Lilly across the floor and to the now open door. He dragged him across the boardwalk and dumped him in the street.
The citizens, male and female, stood and applauded Smoke as he walked back inside the saloon. The barkeep stood rooted behind the bar, disbelief and fear in his eyes. “Don’t kill me!” he finally squalled.
“He’s been Tom Lilly’s biggest supporter,” a tired-looking man said. “But he’s nothing. As soon as Tom’s men come back from making their collections around the area, you’re gonna be in real trouble, mister.”
“Collections?” Smoke asked.
“They claim to be protecting us,” a woman said, standing outside the saloon and speaking through the open door. No way a good woman would enter a saloon. “They showed up here about three years ago. Next thing we knew, our part-time marshal was dead and Tom and his bunch were running things.”
“Several tried to intervene,” a man said. “They come up dead or missing.”
“How many in Tom’s gang?” Smoke asked, knowing he had gotten himself into another situation.
“It varies. Anywhere from six to ten. Scum just seem to gather around the likes of Tom Lilly.”
“Oh, my Lord!” a woman cried. “Tom’s gettin’ to his feet.”
Smoke stepped out onto the boardwalk. By now, all had noticed the unusual way he wore his guns and pegged him as a gunfighter. The man from the livery stood on the fringe of the crowd and said nothing. But there was a big grin on his face.
With blood running down his face from the savage beating he’d just taken from Smoke, Tom Lilly staggered to his feet and swayed for a moment. “No man does this to me and lives,” Tom snarled the words. Then he grabbed for his gun.