“Don’t bet on him being close,” Utah said. “He’s probably cleared out of this area and huntin’ some of the others.”
He was wrong. Smoke was less than fifty yards away, flat on his belly under some brush, listening and watching.
“The man must move like a ghost,” Angel said, nervously looking around him.
“Knock off that ghost business,” Utah said. “He puts his pants on the same way we all do. He just got lucky, that’s all.” But Utah didn’t sound too convincing.
“He gave me a message to tell y‘all,” Cosgrove said. “He said he was tired of this business and to leave him alone. If we keep pushin’, he’s gonna start killin’. And when he starts, he’s gonna do it right; that there wasn’t none of us gonna leave the High Lonesome alive. He said that no amount of money was worth our lives. And to think about that.”
“Jensen had you and didn’t kill you,” Utah said, thinking: That ain’t-like him. If what I’m thinkin’ is true? ...
Angel looked around him, at the silent timber and the towering mountains, thrusting their snow-capped peaks into the skies. The clouds were low this day, the hint of rain or snow in the air. “I do not like this place,” the Mexican gunfighter said.
“This place is just a place,” Utah said. “The place ain’t what we got to worry about. It’s Smoke Jensen we got to watch out for.”
“Smoke Jensen is this place,” Angel said. “He is of the mountains.” Angel sniffed a couple of times.
“You smell somethin’?” Gary asked.
Marlene Ulbrich sat her horse and stared at the dark timber. Her horse had just pricked up its ears and she was instantly alert. She was an excellent horsewoman, and knew to trust her animal’s instincts. She saw something move. It looked like a man. She lifted her rifle and fired. The others in her team were at her side within seconds.
“What did you see?” Hans asked.
“A man. Right there by that lightning-marked tree.”
Smoke had hit the ground the instant he saw the woman lift her rifle. The slug had missed him by several feet; but the act had confirmed his suspicions that the women in the group were just as dangerous as the men. Maybe more so. He had rolled back into the timber, leaped to his nowmoccasined feet, and made his way deeper into the thickness of nature.
With a sinking feeling in his stomach, he now knew he had no choice in the matter. He was not going to run and run and run in the hopes they would give up; that would do nothing except delay the inevitable. Those hunting him were set on killing him, so he had to fight with the same callousness they were exhibiting.
He would let the man he’d strung up give his warning to the others. If they still chased him after hearing that . . . Smoke would do what a man had to do, and let the chips fall.
“Anybody want to leave?” von Hausen faced the group.
No one spoke or moved.
“Very well,” von Hausen said. “We shall commence the search at first light. John T., put out guards. Jensen will surely attack the encampment in some fashion this night. We’ve got to be ready for him.”
“Yes, sir. You men get your slickers. It’s gonna rain,” John T. told them, after looking up at the leaden skies. And the advantage is gonna be Jensen’s, he thought, but did not say it aloud.
“I am sure I hit him,” Marlene said. “You know, I seldom miss a shot.”
“Perhaps he’s wounded,” Gunter said.
“There was no sign of blood,” Hans said. “And I inspected the area carefully. If he is wounded, it’s slight.”
“Jensen’d pay no more attention to a flesh wound than he would a mosquito bite,” John T. muttered to Utah.
“You goin’ all the way with this, John?” Utah asked.
“Until either me or Smoke Jensen is dead,” the gunfighter said. “It’s personal.”
“Thought it might be. He kill a friend of yourn?”
Utah grunted. “He’s killed about a
friends of mine. And about a dozen friends of yours and a dozen friends of every man here. But I know something them royal folks over yonder don’t, Utah, and you keep it to yourself, all right?”
“If you say so.”
“I put it all together just this morning, after the news about Cosgrove. I had me a hunch all along, and that just sewed it up in my mind.”
“What?” Utah moved closer. He had a hunch he knew.
“Jensen don’t wanna kill no more, Utah. I think he’s run out of nerve.”
“But I been hearin’ you tellin’ them counts and dukes and such that . . .”
“I know what I been tellin’ them. I been doin’ that deliberate, tryin’ to get them skittish. I want Jensen myself, Utah. I want him bad.”
“I see what you mean. I had the same feelin’ this mornin’.”
“Think about it. Jensen’s probably gonna slip into camp and scare the drawers offen them ladies. But he ain’t gonna kill, Utah. He ain’t got it in him no more. He’s all burned out. If Tom Lilly had faced Jensen last year, Jensen would have shot him without blinkin’. That rummy from the town told us that Jensen shot Tom in the arm. In the arm! That ain’t the Smoke Jensen I been hearin’ songs sung about and books writ about and stories bein’ told. You see what I mean?”
“You right, John T.” He grinned in the lightly falling mist. “You gonna be famous, John T. I can see it now. The man who kilt Smoke Jensen.”
“That’s right. I want you boys to just stand back when we corner him. I want him, Utah. Me. Understood?”
“You got it, John T. He’s all yourn.”
Maria did not stir at the slight bumping sound in the night. The bumping sound was Smoke laying the butt of a
.44 against Gunter’s head. Hard. She did not even stir when the lightly falling rain and the cold winds entered through the slit in the back of their tent. What did get her full attention was when a hard hand clamped over her mouth and another hand grabbed her by her long blonde hair and jerked her halfway out of the blankets.
Her wide open and frightened eyes looked into the coldest, meanest eyes she thought she had ever seen in her life.
“I’m Jensen,” the big man said in a whisper. “You didn’t pull out after I roped and trussed-up and warned your hired skunk today, so I thought I’d pay you a visit and tell you personally. No, your man’s not dead. I just conked him on the noggin. He’ll have a headache, but nothing else when he wakes up. But if you continue to chase me, he will be dead. Do you understand that, lady?”
She nodded her head.
Outside, the sky rumbled darkly with deep thunder and the rain picked up.
Smoke looked through the very dim light at the badly frightened woman. Gunter snored in his Smoke-induced unconsciousness. “I want to be left alone, lady. That’s all I want. You people leave these mountains now. Do it tomorrow... first thing. I don’t want to see any of you women hurt. But if you keep on chasing me, odds are you’ll get hurt. You understand?”
She nodded her head.
Smoke turned her head with the biggest and hardest and roughest hands she had ever felt in her life. She looked at his guns. He had two in holsters, and two stuck down in his gunbelt. “Now what you’ll do, lady, is this: I’m leaving. You’re going to count to one hundred and then you can squall and holler all you want to. But if you start screaming before that real slow hundred count is over, I’m going to turn around and fill this tent so full of lead there isn’t a chance you won’t catch at least one slug. Do you understand all that?”
Again, she nodded her head.
Smoke lowered her head back to the silk pillows and pulled the covers up to her eyes. “Goodbye, your ladyship. I really hope I never see you again.”
Then he was gone, moving silently through the rainy night.
Maria lay in her warm blankets and dutifully counted to one hundred. Then she started bellowing like a lost calf in a hail storm.
The camp was filled with men in various stages of dress and undress.
“Smoke Jensen!” Maria screamed. “He was in my tent. He manhandled me and hit Gunter on the head.” Then she lost all her expensive finishing school training. “Five thousand dollars to the man who kills that son of a bitch!”
The night erupted in gunfire, with nobody hitting anything except raindrops. But in the two minutes that Smoke had been gone, he had covered a lot of ground, far out of range of even the best rifle made. He had not heard Maria’s offer for his head. An hour later, Smoke had dried off, changed clothes, and was snug in his lean-to.
He had built a hat-sized fire, boiled his coffee and fried some bacon, and then put out the fire. He leaned back amid the sweet-smelling boughs that lined the ground under his ground sheet and blankets.
He chuckled. If he hadn’t been mistaken, Princess Maria had been so scared she had peed in her expensive drawers.
The morning brought with it a mountain downpour. There was no way anybody was leaving camp in all this fury. Gunter was nursing a headache to go with the lump on the side of his head and Maria was still cussing, furious because a damn commoner had dared put his filthy hands on her.
“You was right, John T.,” Utah said. “Jensen could have kilt a dozen of us last night. He’s lost it.”
John T. nodded his head in agreement. “But it shore shook them noblepeople up, didn’t it. Even ol’ ramrod-up-the-butt von Hausen is lookin’ at Jensen in a different light. We got it made, Utah. Got it made, man!”
But John T. was wrong about von Hausen’s different attitude.
“Nothing that Jensen has done so far agrees with all the talk about him,” von Hausen told his group. “The man could have demoralized the camp last night. He could have killed a dozen men. He didn’t. Why?”
Gunter shook his head and grimaced at the pain.
Hans shrugged his shoulders.
“He hasn’t lost his nerve, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Marlene said. “That took a lot of cold nerve to come into an armed camp.”
“Oh, no,” Frederick said. “He still has plenty of courage. But he
can’t kill anymore!”
That got everybody’s attention.
“Add it up. That chap we met on the trail several days back. He told us about that young hooligan in that saloon back south that braced Smoke. According to what the drifter heard, Smoke refused to be goaded into fighting him; actually walked away from the young hoodlum. A gambler killed the loud-mouth moments later. And that thug, Tom Lilly. That old drunk said Smoke shot him in the
Smoke Jensen never shot anybody in the arm in his life. He fired at us the other day. But did he? I think not. He was shooting all around us. But not at us. He roped Cosgrove but didn’t even hurt him. Smoke Jensen can no longer kill. The game now becomes ever so much more interesting.”
“How do you mean, Frederick?” Marlene asked.
“We press him. Push him. Force him to stand and fight. And then we can all have a good laugh at his expense as we watch him stand helplessly, unable to kill. That will truly be a moment for posterity. The great legendary Smoke Jensen, unable to use his guns, reduced to tears.” His laugh was triumphal.
“This calls for champagne,” Hans said. “I believe we can safely open one of the few bottles we brought for this occasion.”
“But of course!” von Hausen said, his voice full of good cheer. “But we must save at least one bottle to drink over Smoke Jensen’s body while Hans takes pictures of the event. Your camera equipment is intact; it stood the journey well, Hans?”
“Oh, yes. We shall have our pictures, Frederick. I assure you of that.”