The latest action-packed installment in the national bestselling Western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone’s long-running Mountain Man historical series.
JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. HUNT OR BE HUNTED.
The bear seems harmless—at first. Just a lost and confused grizzly poking around Big Rock. Then the killings begin. A horse wrangler is mangled. A rancher mauled. Then a bartender in the heart of town is found clawed to a bloody pulp. Now every man in Big Rock is taking up arms to hunt down the beast before it strikes again—which worries the local sheriff. He’s afraid this amateur hunting party could turn into a mass funeral real fast. So he asks Smoke Jensen to help keep everyone calm and contain the panic. Unfortunately, it’s too late. The panic is out of control. And the hunt is on. . . .
While the gun-toting locals head for the hills in search of the bear, a ruthless gang of bank robbers ride into the half-empty town—armed to the teeth. Then a professional wild game hunter shows up offering to kill the grizzly—for a price. If that wasn’t enough, a traveling medicine man claims the bear is part of his act—and wouldn’t hurt a soul. Smoke Jensen isn’t sure what to believe or who to trust. But one thing is certain: Where there are jaws, claws, and outlaws, there will be blood. . . .
Release date: November 28, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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Dark Night of the Mountain Man
William W. Johnstone
Smoke Jensen happened to be in the settlement that same day, having come in to send some telegrams related to business concerning his ranch, the Sugarloaf.
A ruggedly handsome man of average height, with unusually broad shoulders and ash blond hair, Smoke stood on the porch of Sheriff Monte Carson’s office, propping one of those shoulders against a post holding up the awning over the porch.
The lawman was sitting in a chair, leaning back with his booted feet resting on the railing along the front of the porch. His fingers were laced together on his stomach, which was starting to thicken a little with age.
At first glance, neither man looked like what he really was.
Smoke was, quite probably, the fastest and deadliest shot of any man who had ever packed iron west of the Mississippi. Or east of there, for that matter.
As a young man, he’d had a reputation as a gunfighter and outlaw, although all the criminal charges ever levied against him were bogus. Scurrilous lies spread by his enemies.
These days, he was happily married and the owner of the largest, most successful ranch in the valley. In fact, the Sugarloaf was one of the finest ranches in all of Colorado. Smoke was more than content to spend his days running the spread and loving Sally, his beautiful wife.
Despite that intention, trouble still had a habit of seeking him out more often than he liked.
At one time, Monte Carson had been a hired gun, a member of a wolf pack of Coltmen brought in by one of Smoke’s mortal enemies to wipe out him and his friends.
It hadn’t taken Monte long to figure out who was really in the right and switch sides. He had been a staunch friend to Smoke ever since, even before Big Rock had been founded and he’d been asked to pin on the sheriff’s star.
Pearlie Fontaine, another member of that gang of gun-wolves, had also changed his ways and was now the foreman of the Sugarloaf. Smoke couldn’t have hoped for two finer, more loyal friends than Monte and Pearlie.
Or a finer day than this, with its blue sky, puffy white clouds, and warm breeze. Evidently, Monte felt the same way, because he said, “Sure is a pretty day. Almost too pretty to work. What do you reckon the chances are that all the troublemakers in these parts will feel the same way, Smoke?”
“They just might,” Smoke began with a smile, but then he straightened from his casual pose and muttered, “or not.”
Monte saw Smoke’s reaction and brought his feet down from the railing. As he sat up, he said, “What is it?”
“Hoofbeats. Sounds like a team coming in a hurry.”
Monte stood up. He heard the horses now, too, although Smoke’s keen ears had picked up the swift rataplan a couple of seconds earlier.
“Somebody moving fast like that nearly always means trouble.”
“Yeah,” Smoke said, pointing, “and here it comes.”
A wagon pulled by four galloping horses careened around a corner up the street. The vehicle turned so sharply as the driver hauled on the team’s reins that the wheels on the left side came off the ground for a second. Smoke thought the wagon was going to tip over.
But then the wheels came back down with a hard bounce and the wagon righted itself. The driver was yelling something as he whipped the horses.
Monte had joined Smoke at the edge of the porch. “What in blazes is he saying?”
“It sounds like . . . bear,” Smoke said. “Is that Nelse Andersen?”
The wagon flashed past them. Monte said, “Yeah, I saw him drive by a little while ago, not long before you showed up. Looked like he was on his way back to his ranch.”
They watched as the wagon swerved down the street and then came to a sliding, jarring stop in front of the Brown Dirt Cowboy Saloon. Nelse Andersen practically dived off the seat and ran inside, leaving the slapped-aside batwings swinging to and fro behind him.
“Well, I have to find out what this is about,” Monte said. “He can’t be driving so fast and reckless in town. He’s lucky he didn’t run over anybody.”
“I’ll come with you. I’m a mite curious myself.”
By the time they reached the saloon and pushed through the batwings, Andersen was standing at the bar with a group of men gathered around him. A rangy, fair-haired man, he had a drink in his hand, which was shaking so badly that a little of the whiskey sloshed out as he lifted the glass to his mouth.
The liquor seemed to steady him. He thumped the empty glass on the bar and said, “It was ten feet tall, I tell you! Maybe even taller!”
One of the bystanders said, “I never saw a grizzly bear that tall. Close to it, maybe, but not that big.”
“This wasn’t a regular bear,” Andersen insisted. “It was a monster! I never saw anything like it. It had to weigh twelve hundred pounds if it was an ounce!”
He shoved the empty glass across the hardwood toward the bartender and raised expectant eyebrows. The bartender looked at Emmett Brown, the owner of the place, who stood nearby with his thumbs hooked in his vest pockets. Brown frowned.
A man tossed a coin on the bar and said, “Shoot, I’ll buy him another drink. I want to hear the rest of this story.”
Brown nodded, and the bartender poured more whiskey in the glass, filling it almost to the top. Andersen picked it up and took a healthy swallow.
“Start from the first,” the man who had bought the drink urged.
“Well, I was on my way back to my ranch,” Andersen said. “I was out there goin’ past Hogback Hill, where the brush grows up close to the road, and all of a sudden this . . . this thing rears up outta the bushes and waves its paws in the air and roars so loud it was like thunder crashin’ all around me! Scared the bejabbers out of my horses.”
“I think it scared you, too,” a man said.
Andersen ignored that and went on, “I thought the team was gonna bolt. It was all I could do to hold ’em in. The bear kept bellerin’ at me and actin’ like it was gonna charge. I knew I needed to get outta there, so I turned the team around and lit a shuck for town.”
Emmett Brown had come closer along the bar. “You had a gun, didn’t you? Why didn’t you shoot it?”
Andersen tossed back the rest of the drink and once again set the empty firmly on the bar.
“I didn’t figure that rifle of mine has enough stopping power to put him down. I could’a emptied the blamed thing in him and it might’ve killed him eventually, but not in time to keep him from gettin’ those paws on me and tearin’ me apart.” Andersen shuddered. “I wouldn’t’a been nothin’ but a snack for a beast that big!”
“I still say you’re exaggeratin’,” claimed the man who had said he’d never seen a grizzly bear ten feet tall. “You just got scared and panicked. Maybe it seemed that big to you, but it really wasn’t. It couldn’t have been.”
Andersen glared at him and said, “Then why don’t you go out there to Hogback Hill and see for yourself? I hope that grizzly gets you and knocks your head off with one swipe o’ his paw!”
“I don’t cotton to bein’ talked to like that—” the man began as he clenched his fists.
“That’s enough,” Monte Carson said, his voice sharp and commanding. “You’re not going to bust up this saloon because of some brawl over how big a bear is.”
Enthralled by Andersen’s story, the men hadn’t realized that Smoke and Monte were standing at the back of the crowd, listening.
Now they split apart so that the sheriff and Smoke could step forward. Nelse Andersen turned from the bar to greet them.
“Sheriff, you better put together a posse and ride out there as fast as you can.”
“Why would I do that?” Monte asked. “I can’t arrest a bear. Assuming there really is one and that he’s still there.”
“You don’t believe me, Sheriff?” Andersen pressed a hand to his chest and looked mortally offended.
“Those do sound like some pretty wild claims you’re making.”
Smoke said, “I’ve seen some pretty big grizzlies, but never one that was more than ten feet tall and weighed twelve hunderd pounds. I think you’d have to go up to Alaska or Canada to find bears that big.”
“Well, Smoke, no offense to you or the sheriff, but I’ll tell you the same thing I told Hodges there. Why don’t you ride out there and have a look for yourself? A critter as big as the one I saw is bound to have left some tracks!”
Smoke exchanged a glance with Monte and then said, “You know, I think I just might do that. Especially if you come along and show me where you saw him, Nelse.”
Andersen swallowed hard, opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then he nodded and said, “I’ll do it. I got to go home sometime, and I’ll admit, I’ll feel a mite better about travelin’ on that stretch of road if you’re with me.”
“I’m ready to go if you are.” Smoke looked at Monte again. “Are you coming?”
“No, I’d better stay here in town,” the sheriff said, adding dryly, “since I don’t really have any jurisdiction over bears. But you’ll tell me what you find, won’t you, Smoke?”
“Sure,” Smoke replied with a chuckle.
One of the bystanders said, “How about the rest of us comin’ along, too?”
“Might be better not to,” Smoke said. “A big bunch might spook that bear and make him attack, if he’s still out there.”
The real reason Smoke didn’t want them coming along was because he knew how easy it was for a group of men to work themselves up into a nervous state where they might start shooting at anything that moved. That could lead to trouble.
A few men muttered at the decision, but Smoke was so well respected in Big Rock that no one wanted to argue with him. He and Andersen left the Brown Dirt Cowboy, but not until Andersen cast one more longing glance at the empty glass on the bar and sighed in resignation.
Smoke’s horse was tied at the hitch rail in front of the sheriff’s office. He swung into the saddle and fell in alongside the wagon as Andersen drove out of Big Rock. The Sugarloaf was located off the main trail that ran due west out of the settlement, but Andersen followed a smaller trail that angled off northwest toward the small spreads located in the foothills on that side of the valley.
As they moved along the trail, Smoke chatted amiably with the rancher, who was a bachelor, well-liked but not particularly close to anybody in these parts. Andersen asked after Sally, as well as Pearlie and Cal Woods, another of Smoke’s ranch hands. He didn’t seem to be affected much by the whiskey he had consumed. Smoke had heard that Andersen had a hollow leg when it came to booze, and now he was seeing evidence of that.
They covered several miles before Andersen pointed to a rugged ridge up ahead on the right and said, “That’s Hogback Hill.”
“I know,” Smoke said. “Good name for it. It looks like a hog’s back, sort of rough and spiny.”
Andersen was starting to look apprehensive now. “That brush on the right is where I saw the bear. He must’ve been down on all fours in it. When I came along, he just reared up bigger’n life. I really thought he was gonna eat me.”
Smoke’s sharp eyes scanned the thick vegetation they were approaching. “I don’t see anything moving around in there,” he said. “Or hear any rustling in the brush, either.”
“I didn’t see or hear anything out of the ordinary until suddenly he was right there, no more than twenty feet from me. He’s a sneaky one, that bear is. He was layin’ up, waitin’ to ambush me.”
Smoke tried not to grin as Andersen said that with a straight face. The rancher appeared to believe it. Smoke supposed he ought to give the man the benefit of the doubt. As far as he could recall, Andersen didn’t have a reputation for going around spreading big windies.
“We’ll be ready, just in case,” Smoke said as he pulled his Winchester from its saddle scabbard under his right leg. He laid the rifle across the saddle in front of him.
A moment later, Andersen pulled back on the reins and brought his team to a stop. “This is it,” he said. “This is the place.” He pointed into the brush. “Right there. I’ll never forget it.”
Smoke studied the bushes and listened intently. There was no sign of a bear or any other wildlife, other than a few birds singing in some trees about fifty yards away.
“I’m going to take a closer look,” he said.
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“I don’t think there’s anything in there.” Smoke swung a leg over the saddle and dropped to the ground, holding the Winchester ready in case he needed it. He had spotted something that interested him, and as he moved into the brush, using the rifle barrel to push branches aside, he got a better look at what he had noticed.
Quite a few of the branches were snapped around the spot where Andersen said the bear had been, as if they’d been broken when something large and heavy pushed through the brush. A frown creased Smoke’s forehead as he spotted something else. He reached forward and plucked a tuft of grayish brown hair from a branch’s sharply broken end.
That sure looked like it could have come from a bear’s coat.
Smoke moved closer, pushed more of the brush aside, and looked down at the ground. Some rain had fallen about a week earlier, so the soil was still fairly soft, not dried out yet.
After a long moment, he turned his head and called, “Come here, Nelse.”
“I ain’t sure I want to,” the man replied. “What did you find?”
“Better you come take a look for yourself. There’s nothing around here that’s going to hurt you.”
With obvious reluctance, Andersen set the brake on the wagon, wrapped the reins around it, and climbed down from the seat. He edged into the brush and followed the path Smoke had made.
When Andersen reached Smoke’s side, Smoke pointed at the ground and said, “Take a look.”
Andersen’s eyes widened. He breathed a curse as he peered at what he saw etched in the dirt.
It was the unmistakable paw print of a gigantic bear.
“So he was telling the truth? There really is a monster bear roaming around out there?”
Monte Carson sounded as if he were having trouble believing what he had just said.
Smoke, straddling a turned-around chair in the sheriff’s office, said, “We only found three tracks, and they were scattered some. I couldn’t tell from them exactly how tall the varmint is, but they were deep enough that I can say he’s pretty heavy. Might go a thousand pounds.”
“So not as big as what Nelse claimed, but still a mighty big bear.”
“Yeah,” Smoke agreed. “I don’t recall ever seeing one that big around here.”
“What did you do with Nelse?”
“Rode with him back to his ranch.” Smoke smiled. “He didn’t much want to travel alone. He kept looking back over his shoulder like he was afraid that bear had climbed into the wagon with him.”
“Then you came back here instead of heading home?’
Smoke nodded. “Sally’s not expecting me back at any particular time. I thought it would be a good idea to let you know there was some truth to what Nelse said. There was a good-sized bear within a few miles of town earlier today. The tracks prove that.”
The broad shoulders rose and fell in a shrug as Smoke continued. “Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s still anywhere around these parts. When you watch bears moving around, they look like they’re just lumbering along, but they can move pretty quickly when they want to.”
“Yeah. Kind of like runaway freight trains.”
“Anyway, this one has had enough time to cover some ground. He could be a long way off by now.”
“Or he could be wandering around the edge of town.” Monte sighed. “I’m going to have to warn folks, Smoke. They need to be on the lookout and especially keep an eye on their kids.”
“I agree, but I wish there was some way to avoid a panic.”
“It was too late for that once Nelse Andersen started guzzling down whiskey and spewing his tale,” Monte said. “You know some of the fellas who were in the Brown Dirt Cowboy have already started spreading the story by now.”
“More than likely.” Smoke rested his hands on the chair’s back and pushed himself to his feet. “Let folks know that first thing tomorrow morning, Pearlie and I are going to try to pick up that bear’s trail and find out where it went from Hogback Hill. If it left this part of the country, then people can stop worrying about it.”
“And if it’s still around here somewhere?”
“Pearlie and I will find it and drive it on out of the valley if we can.”
“What if it won’t leave?”
“Then we’ll deal with it,” Smoke said with a note of finality in his voice.
For such an apparently huge creature, the bear proved to be surprisingly elusive. Smoke and Pearlie found its tracks leading north from Hogback Hill the next morning and followed them for a while, but the trail disappeared when it entered the rocky, mostly barren foothills at the base of the mountains in that direction.
When they finally reined in and admitted defeat after casting back and forth among the hills for several hours, Pearlie shook his head disgustedly and said, “We need Preacher with us. That old boy can follow a trail better’n anybody who ever drew breath.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Smoke said. The old mountain man had been his mentor and like a second father to him for many years. It was said he could track a single snowflake through a blizzard. “There’s no telling where Preacher is, though. He could be anywhere from Canada to old Mexico.”
Pearlie rubbed his beard-stubbled chin and said, “We’re liable to have folks from town roamin’ around out here on the range lookin’ for the critter, figurin’ they’ll shoot it and be acclaimed as heroes, but more than likely they’ll accidentally shoot each other.”
“I know,” Smoke said, nodding, “but I’m hoping the bear actually has moved on and that as time goes by without it being spotted again, people will forget about it. It may take a while, but things ought to go back to normal eventually.”
“Maybe.” Pearlie didn’t sound convinced. “Problem is, when folks get worked up about somethin’, all their common sense goes right out the window.”
Smoke couldn’t argue with that statement.
Three days later, a middle-aged cowboy named Dean McKinley was following one of his boss’s steers that had strayed up a draw. Water ran through there any time it rained very much, but that dried up quickly, sucked down by the sand underneath the rocky streambed.
The iron shoes on the hooves of McKinley’s horse clinked on those rocks as he rode slowly, swinging his gaze back and forth between the draw’s brushy banks.
McKinley had heard about the bear. Another cowboy who rode for the same spread had been in the Brown Dirt Cowboy that day and had brought back the tale of Nelse Andersen’s run-in with the giant beast.
As far as McKinley was concerned, Andersen was a loco Scandihoovian who drank too much, but the story had had the ring of truth to it.
The last thing McKinley wanted to do was run into a grizzly bear while he was out there alone on the range.
Maybe the smart thing to do would be to turn around and hope the steer found its way back home, he told himself.
Then the blasted critter had to go and bawl piteously, somewhere up ahead of him. To McKinley’s experienced ears, it sounded like the steer was scared of something.
He hesitated for a couple of heartbeats, then muttered a curse under his breath and dug his bootheels into his horse’s flanks, sending it loping forward.
He had just rounded a bend in the draw when something loomed in front of him, moving his way fast. McKinley couldn’t hold back a startled yell as he tugged hard on the reins and brought his horse to an abrupt stop. His other hand dropped to the butt of the revolver holstered on his hip.
Then he realized it was the steer charging toward him, wild-eyed with fear. McKinley jerked his mount to the side to get out of the way. The steer’s run was an ungainly thing, but it was moving pretty fast anyway as it charged past him.
“What the devil?” McKinley muttered as he twisted in the saddle to look behind him. The frantic steer disappeared around the bend, heading back the way McKinley had come.
The cowboy was still looking back when his horse let out a shrill, sudden, terrified whinny and tried to rear up. McKinley hauled hard on the reins to keep the horse under control as he looked in front of him again.
Twenty yards away, from around another bend, came the bear.
The creature was enormous, even on all fours. To McKinley’s eyes, it seemed like the bear was as big as the horse he was on, maybe even bigger.
And it was coming fast toward him, panting and growling.
“Yowww!” McKinley cried as he realized what was happening. The steer had fled in blind panic from the bear. Now it was his turn. The massive beast had already covered half the distance between them by the time McKinley got his mount wheeled around and kicked it into a run.
The horse took off like a jackrabbit, so fast that McKinley had to reach up and grab his hat to keep it from flying off. He didn’t really care about the hat. Grabbing it was just instinct.
The bear was so close that McKinley could hear its breath rasping. He thought he could feel the heat of it on the back of his neck, but that was probably just his imagination. The cow pony, once it got its hooves under it, was running fast and smooth now.
Unfortunately, a bear could run just about as fast as a horse. That was what McKinley had heard. It appeared to be true, but as he glanced back over his shoulder, he saw that the bear wasn’t gaining on him, either.
It might come down to which animal tired first or whether the horse tripped.
If they went down, McKinley knew, it would be all over.
He suddenly remembered that he had a gun on his hip. He knew better than to think a Colt would stop a huge grizzly bear, but he clawed the iron out of leather anyway and triggered it behind him without looking. Maybe the racket would make the bear stop, if nothing else. He pulled the trigger until the hammer clicked on an empty chamber.
A bellowing roar sounded. McKinley looked back and saw that his desperate ploy might have worked. The bear had stopped and reared up on its hind legs. It swatted at the air with its massive pa. . .
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