“What does it mean?”
“That’s the Blackfoot sign for warning. Tellin’ us not to come any further.”
“Oh!” Marlene said, riding up. “Will we get to shoot some red wild Indians?”
“No Injun put that there, your ladyship,” John T. told her. “Smoke Jensen done that.”
“How do you know that?” Hans asked.
“See that little squirmly lookin’ thing off to one side? That’s the sign for smoke. He’s tellin’ us that from here on, the game is over.”
“Good, good!” Frederick said. “He’s throwing down the glove.” He dismounted and with his boots, kicked the strange assemblage of rocks apart.
“How will Smoke know we’ve picked up his challenge?” Gunter asked.
“ ’Cause he’s watchin’ us right now,” John T. said. “Bet on it.”
The howl of a wolf touched them, the quivering call echoing all around them.
Montana Jess looked at John T. “And there he is.”
“Yep. And there he is,” John T. said.
Frederick looked all around him. The silence of the deep timber was all he could feel and see. “Jensen!” he called. “Smoke Jensen! Your time has come to die. Not by a faster gun, but by a man who is much more intelligent than you. You’ll see, Jensen. You’ll see.”
Jerry Watkins glanced at Mike Hunt. The two gunmen from West Texas shrugged their shoulders. They’d heard brags before.
Von Hausen took his rifle from his specially-made saddle boot. “Well, come on!” he said impatiently. “Our quarry is challenging us to hunt him. So, let’s hunt him.”
John T. looked down from his saddle. “You want us in on this?”
“No,” von Hausen said. “We’re just going to toy with him a bit this time.”
“Uh-huh,” John T. said. He swung down from the saddle and led his horse away.
Von Hausen and the others loaded up and took the caps from the telescopic sights. Von Hausen grinned. “We’ll have some fun with him now.” He levered in a round and started blasting at the quiet of the woods.
The others in his party followed suit and between the six of them put about eighty rounds into the woods, the slugs howling off rocks, scaring the birds, scarring the trees, and ruining the peacefulness of the hole.
“All right,” Smoke said, and lifted his Winchester .44-.40 he’d bought back at the settlement. “Now we know.” His first round tore the saddle horn off of von Hausen’s horse and sent the animal bucking and snorting in fear. His second slug tore up the earth at von Hausen’s feet and put the German nobleman on the ground. His third slug howled wickedly off a boulder and just missed—as was his intention-Gunter’s head. He hit the ground and hugged it.
The women-who had never been under fire—shrieked and ran for cover.
Hans gallantly stood his ground. He raised his rifle to fire at the puffs of gunsmoke coming from above him and Smoke put a round between the man’s boots, showering and stinging his ankles with rocks. Hans hit the ground and sprawled out quite unaristocratically.
Smoke shifted positions immediately, vanishing silently as a great gray wolf back into the thick timber.
John T., cold-blooded killer that he was, had taken cover-just like the rest of his crew—before the echo of the first shot had died away. John T. had the general location of Smoke spotted, but damned if he was going to expose himself to Smoke’s deadly fire. Not yet. They had plenty of time.
“Swine!” von Hausen said, getting to his knees and brushing himself off. He shook both his fists at the wilderness.
“Wonder what that means?” Ford asked his buddy Cosgrove.
“I don’t know. But it sure sounds nasty.”
“Are you ladies all right?” Gunter called to the women, huddling behind a huge boulder.
“Yes. We’re quite all right,” Andrea returned the call. “That man really must be of terribly low quality to fire on women, don’t you think?”
The fact that she fired first at Smoke apparently never entered her mind.
Cat Brown and Paul Melham exchanged glances, Cat saying, “That’s a strange way of lookin’ at it.”
“Ain’t it the truth. Women start shootin’ at me, I’m damn sure gonna return the fire.”
“Break up into groups,” von Hausen ordered the gunfighters. “Five groups. The first group to corner Smoke Jensen and lead me to him gets an additional five thousand dollars. We start the hunt first thing in the morning. John T., find us a suitable place to make camp.”
“We break up into groups of five,” John T. said. “One group stays with the Germans and we’ll switch around ever’ day so’s ever’body can get the same chance at the additional money.” He rolled him a cigarette. “Damn sure beats the hell out of killin’ homesteaders. I think,” he added.
Smoke had worked his way back to his horses and was gone, vanishing back into the rugged wilderness. He rode through the harsh and unforgiving terrain with the ease of a man who was comfortable with the elements; at home with them. The mountains, the desert, the swamps ... they are neither for nor against a man. They are neutral. But if one is too survive, that person must understand what he is up against and work with his surroundings, never against them.
Smoke understood that. Probably the men of the west riding with the Germans knew it too. He doubted any of the others did. And eventually, he would use that lack of knowledge and their natural arrogance to work against them.
He could have easily killed von Hausen and the others a few moments ago. But he did not want to kill anymore. He wanted to dissuade them from this stupid hunt.
He wondered if that was possible?
He didn’t think so, but he had to try.
Briscoe killed a deer and the meat was cooking as the night began closing in around the hunting party in the Tetons. The hunters were very quiet, each with their own thoughts in this harsh land. Miles away from them, in a very carefully selected spot, Smoke sat before his own small fire—which he would soon extinguish for safety’s sake—and cooked his supper and boiled his coffee. It had been years since he’d been in this country, but all the trails and creeks and rushing mountain streams and cul-de-sacs were mapped in his mind.
He was camped between Hunt Mountain and Prospectors Mountain. To the west lay Fossil Mountain, the east, Phelps Lake. Below him were the hunters. He could actually see their fires, when he stepped out of the rocks which concealed his camp.
“Vain, silly people,” Smoke muttered to the night. “Leading others to their death if they keep this up.”
A wolf howled in the night, and Smoke smiled. He could commiserate with the wolf; knew just how the animal felt. Knew how it felt to be hunted for no real reason. He knew the wolf posed no real threat to mankind; never had and never would, if people would just give it room to hunt and exist. But Smoke knew that much of humankind was timid and selfish; much of what was left were just like those hunting him: the types of people who wanted to kill for the sake of blood-letting alone, enjoying seeing their prey suffer. Smoke had no use for those types. None at all.
Ol’ Preacher had told him, long ago, that if God hadn’t wanted all the critters of the forests and plains and swamps and deserts to exist side by side with man, the Almighty wouldn’t have put them here. Preacher had said that if given the chance, nearly all the critters would leave man alone, if man would just take the time to understand them. Indians felt the same way. But most men were too impatient, and would not take the time to really understand the value of those who share the earth.
Smoke recalled Ol’ Preacher’s words: “One of these days, boy, after we’re dead and gone and has become a part of the wind and the sky and earth, man is gonna look around him and say: I wonder what happened to the wolf, the puma, the bear, the deer, the beaver, the jaybird, and the eagle. I miss them. What happened? And most will be too gawddamn stupid to understand that
was what happened. Bloodthirsty for the kill. Arrogant and unfeelin’ for God’s lesser creatures. Sometimes I wonder just who is God’s lesser creatures. Us, or the animals. Animals don’t kill for sport, just man. Animals don’t kill‘ceptin’ for food to eat or to protect young’uns or territory. Hell’s fire, Smoke, I’ve personal seen babies that wandered off from their tipis that was taken in by wolves and kept alive until they was found. And that’s the truth. You’ll see it yourself as we travel this land, you and me. I have to laugh when I hear folks say wolves is savage creatures. Not unless you mess with ’em they ain’t. But don’t we humans turn savage if somebody messes with us? We damn shore do. It’s a mighty strange and hypocritical world we live in, boy. We humans expect more out of animals than we do out of our own kind. And that’s stupid, boy. Stupid and arrogant.”
The wolf howled again. Its voice was beautiful in the night. Somewhere close to the wolf, a puma coughed a warning to stay out of its territory. An owl hunted in the darkness.
“Stay with us,” Smoke muttered as he put out the fire. “Stay with us. We need you a lot more than you need us.”
Smoke put out his fire and wrapped up in his blankets; but sleep was elusive on this night. He wrestled with his thoughts. He knew he should take the fight to those hunting him. Knew that with just one night’s deadly work he could so demoralize those man-hunters that many of those left would pull out, their hearts and minds numbed with fear.
So why didn’t he?
Because he was tired of the killing. He didn’t want to spill any more blood. It was just that simple. He wished he could shout to the world: Smoke Jensen wants no more.
Wants no more?
When did he ever want the killings? Sure, he had taken the fight to many people over the years. But only after they had done a harm to him or those he loved.
So what made this situation any different from any of the others? What had he done to any of those people hunting him?
The answer was that he had done nothing to any of them.
So why all the reluctance on his part?
He tried to convince himself as he turned in his blankets that it was because of the women with the group.
But he knew that held little truth. From what he had seen so far the women were just as savage and blood-thirsty as their male counterparts. They certainly hadn’t shown any hesitation to fire their weapons. He had seen that evidenced this afternoon.
The bottom line was that he was sick of all the killing. But there was an addendum to that.
Those hunting Smoke seemed determined to kill him.
So where did that leave him? What options did he have? Sleep finally took him as he was thinking: No options.
Al Hayre and his group looked at the silent timber and the towering mountains that loomed all around them. They could feel eyes on them; sensed that Jensen was watching them. It was an uncomfortable feeling knowing that he could see them but they couldn’t see him.
“I don’t like this,” a bounty hunter known only as Gary said.
“You got any better ideas on how to flush him out?” Utah Red asked.
Gary sat his saddle and shut his mouth, a glum expression on his face.
“That’s what I figured,” Utah said. He looked around him. “Where the hell is Cosgrove?”
The wind sighed off the mountains and through the lushness of the unspoiled wilderness, the cold breeze teasing the men, as if to say: I know.
“Well, hell!” Al Hayre said, twisting in the saddle and looking around him. “He was right behind me a minute ago.”
“Somethin’ movin’ in the timber,” Gary said, pointing. “Right over there.”
The men dismounted and ground-reined their horses, taking their rifles from the saddle boots and fanning out, moving toward the timber.
Cosgrove’s horse walked out of the timber, dragging its reins and trying to graze.
“Rope’s gone from the saddle,” Angel Cortez said.
“What the hell does that mean?” Gary asked.
No one replied. No one knew.
As the men drew nearer, muffled sounds came from the gloom of the timber and the thick underbrush.
“Somethin’ kickin’ in there,” Utah said. “High up, ’bout twenty foot off the ground. See it?”
“Si,” Angel said. “But I don’t know what it is—it does not look human.”
Utah was the first to enter the timber from the valley. He pulled up short. “Hell, it’s Cosgrove. He’s all trussed up and hangin’ from a limb. Cosgrove,” Utah yelled, “what in the hell are you doin’ up there?”
But Cosgrove couldn’t answer. One of his socks was stuck in his mouth and tied in place with Cosgrove’s own bandana. He was swinging from his own rope. His guns were missing from their holsters.
The man-hunter was lowered to the ground. The dirty sock was pulled from his mouth. Cosgrove coughed and spat and cussed for a full minute.
“Son of a bitch trussed me up like a side of beef,” Cosgrove said. “He was sittin’ on a tree limb and jerked me off like I wasn’t no more than a baby. I didn’t get to holler or nothin”fore he whapped me up side the head with a club. I wasn’t out no more’un a couple of minutes. He’s got to be close. Took my guns, too. Damn!”