Smoke’s draw was faster than the blink of an eye. He put a .44 slug into Tom’s arm, the slug breaking the bully’s elbow and rendering the arm useless. Tom screamed as the gun dropped back into leather. Smoke’s draw had been so fast Tom had been unable to clear his holster.
“Jesus,” a man said. He cut his eyes to Smoke. “Who in hell are you, mister?”
“A man who doesn’t like bullies,” Smoke told him.
“My arm’s ruint!” Tom bellowed. “You done crippled me.”
“You people do with him as you see fit,” Smoke told the crowd. The whole town had turned out; about a hundred people, including the dogs and cats.
“My boys’ll burn this damn town to the ground,” Tom yelled. “They’ll have their way with the women and kill the men. You people better wise up and run this drifter outta town and get me some medical help.”
“We’ll help you,” a man said, uncoiling a length of rope he’d taken from his saddle.
“I’ll be down the street at the cafe,” Smoke said. He walked back into the saloon and got his coat and hat. He looked at the barkeep. “If you have any sense at all, you’d better take to the air and don’t look back. The townspeople are gettin’ ready to hang Tom Lilly and they just might decide to string you up, too.”
“Who are you?” he stammered, his face sweat-shiny from fear.
The barkeep gulped a couple of times then hit the back door at a run. Seconds later, the sounds of a galloping horse filled the cool air.
“Now wait a minute!” Tom Lilly yelled. “You people can’t do this to me.”
“Shut up, Tom,” a woman told him. “Your days of bullying and killing are over.”
Smoke walked over to Beth’s Cafe and stepped inside.
“Get him up on that horse!” a man yelled, just as Smoke was closing the door. “Take him down to the hangin’ tree.”
“Goddamn you all to hellfire!” Tom screamed.
Smoke sat down by a front window and smiled at the lady behind the counter. “Coffee and a plate lunch,” he said. “Or would you rather go down and see the hanging first?”
“Just as long as Tom Lilly does get hanged,” she said. “He’s got about seven pretty bad ol’ boys due back in town right around noon. What are you going to do about them?”
“I’m not going to do anything,” Smoke told her. “Unless they crowd me. I think the townspeople will handle them.”
She brought him coffee. Smoke watched through the window as men armed with rifles began stationing themselves on roof tops.
“He ran the town through fear and intimidation,” Beth said from the kitchen. “He threatened to do terrible things to the kids. He would take a child’s pet and kill it with his bare hands, right in front of the children. He’s raped more than one woman. Tom Lilly is a horrible man.”
“Was,” Smoke said, as he watched the crowd of people come walking back up the wide street, leading a riderless horse. “Tom Lilly is swinging in the wind now.”
Beth placed his plate of food in front of him. “Got puddin’ for dessert.”
“Sounds good.” Smoke ate slowly of the thick stew and hot, fresh-baked bread laden with sweet butter. When he had finished, Beth brought him a big bowl of pudding and he topped that off with more coffee.
Riders galloped into town just as Smoke was sugaring his coffee. He rolled a cigarette and watched the men rein up in front of the saloon.
“Lilly’s men?” he asked.
“Yes. And a scummier bunch never sat a saddle.”
“I don’t think they’ll ever sit another saddle,” Smoke told her.
The words had hardly left his mouth before a dozen rifles smashed the mid-day air and seven bodies lay crumpled in the street, their blood staining the dirt.
“Town’s yours again,” Smoke said.
Smoke made his purchases that afternoon, and although the owner of the general store was curious about what the stranger bought, he asked no questions.
Smoke bought several hundred feet of rope, dynamite, caps, and fuses. He bought a rifle and several hundred rounds of .44’s, then bought a sawed-off shotgun and several boxes of shells. He carried his purchases back to the livery and packed it very carefully.
“Thanks for not spreading my name around town,” he told the liveryman.
“I figured you wanted it that way. You got people on your backtrail, Smoke?”
“Yes. A big bunch of them.”
“They must be fools,” the man said.
“I haven’t figured out exactly what they are, to tell the truth. I’m trying to avoid a fight, and they just keep on coming at me.”
“I think,” the liveryman said drily, after seeing Smoke’s purchases, “them folks comin’ up behind you are gonna be awful sorry when they do catch up with you.”
Smoke had a long, hot bath-figuring this might be the last chance he’d have to take one for some time—and then a shave. He ate an early supper at the cafe but heard no mention of Tom Lilly nor his gang among the townspeople. It was a closed chapter in their lives and probably would never be discussed outside the home. There are an awful lot of people buried in unmarked graves throughout the west.
Smoke went to bed shortly after dark and was up long before dawn. The liveryman had his quarters in the big barn and had coffee boiling when Smoke climbed down from the loft.
“I ain’t fitten for nothin’ ’til I have my coffee,” the liveryman said. “Some folks say I’m plumb grouchy. I figured you for a coffee-drinkin’ man, too.”
“You figured right. What’s between here and the Montana line?”
“Damn little. Couple of old tradin’ posts is all.”
“That’s what I thought.” Smoke sipped his coffee and took a bite of the cold biscuit with a piece of salt meat in it the liveryman had offered. That meant that von Hausen would have to carry a lot of supplies with him, for once they passed this little settlement, there was nothing for a lot of long hard miles.
“You got a wicked look in your eyes,” the liveryman said.
“I got wicked thoughts in my head,” Smoke replied with a smile.
The liveryman went off to get the coffee pot and Smoke took that quiet time to think. The Tetons had been explored a half dozen times by the government, the last one being only a couple of years back. Settlers were now coming into that area, entering by way of the Gros Ventre River and Teton Pass. What the liveryman didn’t know was that two little villages were already established in that area; there might be more but if so, Smoke hadn’t heard of them. But once past the junction of the two narrow roads, just south of Pacific Creek, there was nothing except wilderness until you got up into Montana. And Smoke doubted that von Hausen and company had ever seen wilderness like where he was leading them.
“Tell the people in this town that while they might think they owe me, don’t refuse any type of service to this bunch that’ll be coming along the next day or two. They’re a bad bunch, so don’t cross them.”
“I understand, Smoke.”
“Be sure you do.” He shook hands with the man and saddled up. “See you around, partner,” he said from the saddle.
“See you around, Smoke.”
Smoke rode out into the cold early morning air and headed north.
Angel Cortez picked up Smoke’s trail on the west side of Salt River. Some rocks had been disturbed and that was enough to put the Mexican on the trail. Satisfied he had the right trail, Angel rode back to the main party and told them the news.
“Excellent!” von Hausen said.
“I know where he’s goin’, now,” John T. said. “Little settlement just a few miles north of here. Tom Lilly’s town, so I been told.”
Utah Red spat a stream of tobacco juice. “I bet it ain’t if Jensen rode through there.”
“No bets there,” John T. said, picking up the reins. “We’ll soon find out.”
The townspeople heeded Smoke’s warning, but they didn’t like it and made that very clear by having every man and woman in the town armed when von Hausen and party rode in. It made for quite a show of force.
“He’s been here,” John T. said glumly. “Don’t nobody make any quick moves or act hostile. Smoke’s done shoved some steel up these folks’ backbone and they gonna be quick on the shoot. You boys understand all that?”
They understood, and so did von Hausen and his party of adventurers.
“We’ll have us a bite to eat, conduct our business quietly, and we shall be gone in one hour,” von Hausen instructed.
“Probably be gone sooner than that,” Leo Grant told him. “They’s a closed sign in the cafe winder.” He looked at the abundance of sawed-off shotguns in the hands of grim-faced men and shuddered. He’d seen men cut in two with those things. Sickenin’ sight.
“Saloon’s closed, too,” Nat Reed observed. “I think that we’d just better tend to our business as quickly as possible and ride on.”
“I concur,” Gunter Balke said. “What say you, Frederick?”
“Yes. From the looks of things, this Tom Lilly, and I would assume his men too, are no longer around.”
“Oh, they’re around,” John T. said. “Six feet under.”
“Yonder’s the hangin’ tree,” Cosgrove said softly. “With the rope still on it.”
“Makes my throat hurt just lookin’ at it,” Paul Melham said. “I got an idea: why don’t the most of us just ride on through and we’ll be waitin’ for y’all outside of town? This is a stacked deck if I ever seen one. They’s men on rooftops with rifles, too.”
“Boss?” John T. looked at von Hausen.
“Yes. Good idea. Ride on. You men leading the pack animals stay to help load.”
Von Hausen’s stomach muscles knotted up when he led his group into the general store. There were men all around the store, all armed with sawed-off shotguns.
“We mean no harm to anyone,” Gunter said. “We just want to resupply and we’ll be gone within the hour.”
“Fine,” the owner of the general store said. “But you gonna find this mighty expensive shoppin’.”
Marlene looked at a freshly printed sign and smiled. Beans: $4.00 a lb. Taters: $6.00 a lb. Sugar: $15.00 a lb. Coffee: $20.00 a lb. And so on.
Von Hausen found the whole thing humorous and laughed when she pointed out the sign to him. “Obviously a depressed area, my dear. Let them have their fun. Spread our wealth among the colonials, so to speak. It’s good public relations, you know.”
They bought their supplies, paid for them, and were gone in thirty minutes. At the edge of town, Bob Hogan pointed out a row of fresh-dug graves, the mounds still muddy. “Smoke Jensen came through,” was all he had to say.
Frederick glanced at Hans and arched an eyebrow. “Formidable opponent,” he said, and rode on.
Ol’ Preacher talked about this country, and took Smoke through it when he was just a boy. The old mountain man told Smoke all about the rendezvous he’d attended in the Snake River country back in the early ’30’s. The event was held close to where three Wyoming rivers meet: the Snake, Greys, and Salt.
Smoke rode deeper into the High Lonesome, memories of Ol’ Preacher all around him. It seemed to Smoke that his friend and mentor was guiding him on.
After leaving the settlement, Smoke had angled over, crossed the Salt River Range, and followed the Greys up. He was not far from where the old mountain man, William Sublette, had reached a particularly beautiful and lonesome place and named it Jackson Hole, after another mountain man and close friend, David Jackson. Preacher had told him that was back in ’29, long before the damn settlers started coming in and civilizing everything they touched.
Five decades later, there were still damn few settlers in the area, but those hardy ones who had come, had stayed. The valley where Smoke was heading was approximately forty-eight miles long and about six to eight miles wide, with mountains pushing thousands of feet into the sky all around it and in it.
Smoke was going to test those following him. He was going to give them a little taste of what was in store for them if they persisted in hunting him clear up into the High Lonesome of northwest Wyoming, where the peaks pushed two-and-a-half miles into the sky and one misstep meant death.
Here in the hole is where he’d find out if those on his backtrail really meant to kill him. For if that was true, he would leave some of them to be buried among the Aspen, Englemann spruce, Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. And where the mountain men used to join the wolves in their howling, lending their voices to the ever-sighing winds of the High Lonesome.
“Magnificent country,” Gunter said, riding in a valley between the towering mountains.
“Some of us will enjoy it for eternity, I think,” Angel said.
The words had hardly left his mouth when John T. called for a halt. Frederick rode up to the point. “What’s the matter?” the German asked.
John T. pointed to a strange design of rocks in the middle of the trail. “That’s the matter.”