Legendary national bestselling Western authors William W. Johnstone and J.A. Johnstone return with the latest gun-blazing installment in their newest Smoke Jensen series.
JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WHERE DYING AIN’T MUCH OF A LIVING.
Building a ranch takes heart and grit. Smoke and Sally Jensen are more than capable of meeting the challenges of shaping the land, raising the livestock, and establishing their brand. But Smoke wasn’t always an entrepreneur. He’s more apt to settle accounts with a fast draw than a checkbook. And when he learns his old friend Preacher has been ambushed by outlaws, he wastes no time saddling up and hitting the vengeance trail with his fellow mountain men Audie and Nighthawk.
Preacher’s attackers have taken over the town of Desolation Creek deep in Montana Territory. Their scurrilous leader, Vernon “Venom” McFadden, has his men harrassing terrified homesteaders and townsfolk to get his hands on nearby property that’s rumored to be rich with gold. Smoke and his helpmates drift into town one by one with a plan to root out Venom’s gang of prairie rats and put the big blast on each and every one.
Release date: May 23, 2023
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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William W. Johnstone
Trouble sure had a way of following him.
He hadn’t come to Big Rock with anything on his mind other than taking care of his business, maybe saying hello to a few friends, chief among them Sheriff Monte Carson and Louis Longmont, and then getting on back to the Sugarloaf.
Of course, his wife, Sally, had it in mind to do some shopping, but that was harmless enough, except for the damage it did to his pocketbook. So, no reasonable explanation existed as to why he found himself smack-dab in the middle of a shooting scrape.
Or rather, another shooting scrape.
The last thing he wanted was trouble. He wasn’t the type to just stand idly by when bullets were flying, though. He might catch one of them. Or worse, innocent folks might get shot. So, he drew his Colt with lightning speed and took aim at the man who had just emerged from the general store.
A wisp of powder smoke still curled up from the muzzle of the gun in the man’s fist. He had already shifted his focus elsewhere after firing that first round. Evidently, he caught Smoke’s movement in his peripheral vision and turned his attention back in that direction. He leveled his weapon and sneered.
“I wouldn’t,” Smoke said.
The warning fell on deaf ears and the man’s finger twitched, ready to squeeze off another shot. Smoke’s keen eyes saw that, and his gun roared first.
The bullet hammered into the fella’s chest, sending him backward as his feet flew from beneath him. He landed flat on his back. His fingers went slack and he released the revolver. Smoke ran to the gun and kicked it away. One quick glance told him the gesture hadn’t been necessary, although erring on the side of caution was always better.
A scarlet ring was spreading on the man’s dirty, tattered shirt. Dull, glassy eyes, with the life fading from them, stared up at Smoke.
“Who in the—” Smoke began, wanting to know who he had just shot, and why.
He didn’t have time to finish the question as another shot rang out from inside the general store.
“Sally,” he said, working to rein in the worry he felt rising in his chest. He swung his gun up, while quickly stepping away from the dead hombre, who lay sprawled out in the middle of the street. Eager to check on his wife, who’d gone inside the store a few minutes earlier, Smoke was about to close the gap between himself and the structure, when the door flew open again.
Another gunman burst onto the store’s porch, spinning wildly as if trying to assess his surroundings, but not moving cautiously enough to gain a true lay of the land. This gave Smoke all the time he needed to dive behind a water trough. He reached the cover just in time as the panic-stricken gunman sent two wild shots into the air. As far as Smoke could tell, no one was hit. Most of the folks who had been on the boardwalks or in the street had scrambled for cover when the shooting started.
Just who was this fella and what was he all fired up about? Maybe, Smoke thought, he could end this without any more bloodshed. He didn’t care for the fact that a fresh corpse was only a few feet away. Smoke didn’t hesitate to kill when necessary, but he didn’t take any pleasure in it. If he had his way, he’d never be mixed up in gunplay again.
Smoke rested his arm on the trough and drew a bead, his hand steady, his aim sure.
“Put that gun down!” he called. “No one else has to get hurt. Or worse.”
A few townspeople were hustling around, trying to get out of the line of fire. Two old men who’d been sitting on a bench, enjoying the shade the boardwalk’s overhanging roof offered, dove off the side and onto the ground. Smoke had to chuckle, realizing the impact had probably jarred the old-timers. They were in one piece, though, and didn’t have any bullets in them as they crawled beneath the porch. Thankfully, it seemed as if everyone was out of harm’s way.
Until the little girl dashed past.
Smoke hadn’t even noticed her before now. She couldn’t be any older than six, but might have been as young as four. She was a little thing, and scared, as she screamed for her ma. She tried to make it off the porch, but the gun-wielding hombre extended his free arm and scooped up the child, jerking her back onto the porch before Smoke could react.
The man held on to the girl tightly, using her as a shield as he swept his gun from side to side. She squirmed and kicked her legs as she continued screaming, but she had no chance of escaping the man’s brutal grip.
Smoke regretted not having put a bullet into the wild-eyed varmint as soon as he laid eyes on the man. That would have ended this before he had a chance to grab that poor child.
“I’m gonna get out of here!” he yelled. “You all hear me?”
Smoke caught a glimpse of movement up the street and swiveled his head to see Sheriff Monte Carson hurrying toward the scene, with two deputies following him. Unfortunately, the crazed gunman on the porch noticed them, too, and sent a shot in their direction. Monte and the deputies instinctively split up as the bullet whistled between them. Monte took cover in one of the alcoves along the boardwalk, while the two deputies crouched behind a parked wagon.
The little girl screamed even louder after the shot, but her captor only tightened the arm he had looped around her body under her arms.
“Shut up!” he snarled at the girl. He turned his attention back to the sheriff and yelled, “Stay back! I swear I’ll put a bullet in this here child’s brain!”
Smoke’s blood was boiling. He’d encountered some low-down prairie scum in his day, but anyone who would hurt a child was the worst of the worst. He had to smile, though, when the girl started writhing even harder beneath the man’s arm. She tried throwing her elbows back and even sent a few more kicks toward him, but his strength put an end to the struggle quickly. Still, Smoke admired her fighting spirit. He aimed to tell her as much, too. He’d get a chance, since he would never let that little girl die.
“What is it you want?” Smoke called.
He wasn’t the law in Big Rock, but with the sheriff and his deputies pinned down and unable to get closer, he was in the best position to act.
“I want out of here,” the gunman said. “I want to make it to my horse down yonder, climb in the saddle, and get out of town without any trouble!”
“Sure, friend,” Smoke replied in an affable tone. “Just let the young’un go and you can mosey on out of here. No one will stop you.”
The man’s lips curled back, revealing jagged yellow teeth. “That ain’t how this works. She comes with me. I’ll leave her down the trail when I’m free and clear.”
Smoke’s back stiffened. He couldn’t let the hard case ride out of town with that little girl. If she was carried off by him, she was probably as good as dead.
“My daughter!” a loud, terror-stricken voice screamed. “He has my daughter!”
The hard case swung his gun hand around to cover the panicking woman who ran out of the store next door, holding her dress up as she sprinted. Her feet kicked up gravel and dust, but she didn’t slow down any, until the man jabbed his gun toward her.
“Don’t come any closer! I’ll shoot her!” He jammed the hard barrel back against the child’s skull, causing her to cry out. She tried reaching for her mother, the gesture causing the woman to cry even louder and stretch her arms out, too, as she skidded to a stop in the road.
Smoke had seen more than enough. He couldn’t get a shot off, though. He was good—probably one of the best there was—but even he couldn’t guarantee a clean shot under these circumstances. It was just too risky. And he’d be damned if any harm came to a child because of him.
But he couldn’t not act, either.
The street was eerily silent. Smoke could see the two old-timers crawling quietly beneath the porch, headed toward the gunman, obviously intent on intervening. There was an opening where they could get out, not far behind the man. Smoke hoped it wouldn’t spook the varmint, causing him to shoot the child.
Smoke cast his eyes toward the sheriff. Monte Carson peered around the corner of the alcove where he had taken cover, but he made no move toward the gunman. His deputies stood motionless behind the wagon, following his example.
The tension was thick. Normally, Smoke was as calm as could be in situations like this, but now his heart felt as if it might beat right out of his chest. Perhaps the child’s presence did it. Or maybe his not knowing what had happened to Sally. Had that shot he’d heard earlier hit her? Was she okay? Heaven help that crazed outlaw if she wasn’t. Whatever the reason, his nerves were a bit more frayed than usual.
He fought hard to control his emotions. He needed to proceed with a clear head. He didn’t give a darn about his own life.
Right now, that little girl was all that mattered.
Smoke drew a deep breath, exhaled slowly, and fought down his anger. Now wasn’t the time to be blinded by rage. A wry smile tugged at his lips as a plan began to take shape inside his mind. What he needed was a distraction. Maybe those two old-timers would give it to him. They were edging closer, shifting beneath the porch and looking as if they were ready to scramble out and spring up at any moment.
Just like that, though, in the blink of an eye, the old men and Smoke’s plan became irrelevant.
The outlaw had taken a few steps back on the porch, toward the store’s door. He never bothered to check behind him.
That had been a mistake.
A bottle broke into a dozen pieces as it crashed against his head. One jagged shard tore into his scalp, slicing away the flesh and leaving a hot, wet, bloody streak.
Out of instinct, he dropped the child. She leaped off the porch as quickly as possible and into her mother’s arms. For a moment, Smoke feared the outlaw would trigger his gun, but the man just pawed at his flowing wound. Confusion registered in his eyes as he swayed unsteadily on his feet. His gun slid from his fingers.
He tried spinning around, but didn’t have a chance before a second bottle smashed into him, sending him to the ground, out cold.
Smoke was already at the porch now, his gun still drawn, when he realized who had saved the day.
There in the doorway, with the neck of a broken bottle in her hand, stood Sally.
“What on earth is going on here?” Monte Carson asked. Smoke finished thumbing a fresh cartridge into his walnut-butted Colt and then pouched the iron. “I was wondering that myself.” He looked to Sally and arched an eyebrow. “Here I was worried about you, and I should have been worried about him.” He jerked his head toward the unconscious gunman who lay on the porch’s puncheon floor.
One of the sheriff’s deputies was standing over the downed man, relieving him of his weapons. A small derringer was up his right sleeve, along with a knife in one of his boots. The deputy then rummaged through the man’s pockets and pulled out a wad of greenbacks and waved them toward the sheriff.
“Those are mine!” Don Baker said.
He was a large, easygoing man who ran the mercantile, along with help from his clerk, Ike Hairston. Ike was out on the porch now, too, and hurried to the downed brigand. He reared his foot back, but Sheriff Carson stopped him.
“You can’t kick him now. He’s laid out cold!”
“Well, I oughta,” Ike said, and then his voice trailed off into a consortium of jumbled curse words. “They tried to hold up the store.”
“They didn’t try,” his boss corrected him. “They did rob us. Would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn’t been for Jensen.”
“Which one?” Smoke said with a smile. His eyes darted to Sally, who was now off the porch and checking on the terrified mother and child.
“Thank God she’s okay,” Sally said, rubbing the girl’s back.
The two old-timers had rolled out from under the porch and, after considerable effort, were finally stumbling to their feet.
“Sheriff, I think Walt done broke his backside,” one of them said.
The other groaned as he rubbed his rear end. It took considerable effort for Smoke to control his laughter, and one look at Sally told him she was having the same struggle.
Monte seemed somewhat annoyed when he said, “Will someone just tell me exactly what happened?”
“I’ll tell you,” Ike said, still red-faced with anger. “Those two no-accounts came in the store, acted like they were shopping, but then drew their pistols and demanded the money from the register. They were also trying to take off with a few supplies, jerky and coffee, mostly.” He jabbed a bony finger toward the dead man in the street and said, “He got spooked and told his partner they had to get out of there. That’s when he came out shooting!”
“That explains your ear,” Monte said, looking at Smoke.
Smoke remembered the close call and touched his ear. It stung a little, but the blood had dried now. He’d had a lot worse done to him over the years.
“Guess I was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Smoke said with a chuckle.
“Or the right place,” Monte said. “He may have hit someone with those wild shots, had you not taken him down. Reckon the town is obliged to you for that. Once again.”
It seemed as if Monte took every opportunity he could to state how much the town of Big Rock owed Smoke. In fact, Smoke was mostly responsible for the settlement’s founding, having led an exodus here of folks escaping from the outlaw town of Fontana, several miles away. They had fled to escape the reign of terror carried out by brutal mine owner Tilden Franklin and his hired guns.
Now, a couple of years later, Franklin was dead, and Fontana was an abandoned town, nothing left but moldering ruins, while Big Rock was growing and thriving. Monte Carson wasn’t the only one who gave Smoke a lot of the credit for that happening.
Smoke, however, wasn’t interested in accolades. He was thankful when the storekeeper started talking again.
“Anyway,” Ike Hairston continued, “that spooked his partner inside the store and he started shooting, too.”
“Anyone hit?” the sheriff asked.
“No, but he plugged the dang cracker barrel!” Ike said. He looked as if he wanted to kick the man again. His anger subsiding, he shrugged and said, “That’s when he came out onto the porch, and, well, you saw the rest.”
Sally was at Smoke’s side now. They joined Sheriff Carson in examining the two outlaws. Both wore dirty, torn homespun and it seemed as if neither had bathed in a long while.
Smoke thumbed his curled-brim hat back, revealing more of his ash-blond hair, and scratched his forehead. “Looks like these two had fallen on hard times.”
“Explains why they were so desperate,” Monte said with a frown. “Still doesn’t give them call to carry on like this.”
“Sure doesn’t,” Smoke agreed. “Reckon they could have gotten a meal just about anywhere here in town.”
Smoke wasn’t exaggerating. Big Rock was a friendly community, where folks could find plenty of help if they needed it. Smoke might have even given the two work at the Sugarloaf, had they dropped by. Of course, the fact that one had held a little girl hostage showed he was not simply a good man who’d fallen on desperate times, so Smoke doubted if they’d had any intent on working for an honest day’s wages.
The one Sally had laid out was now starting to groan as he came to.
“Let’s get him on down to the jail,” Monte told his deputies. “I’ll send for Doc Spaulding to patch him up.”
“He needs to take a look at my rear, too!” Walt said, still rubbing his derriere.
“Maybe he can get you one of those sittin’ pillows,” the other old-timer said. “Feels better than resting your cheeks on a hard chair, that’s for sure!”
Monte rolled his eyes and mumbled, “Lord help me.” He turned his focus to the corpse, which lay in the street, and winced as he saw that flies had already started to gather. “I’ll get the undertaker down here, too. I’ll look through the wanted dodgers I have back at the office. Could be that you have some reward money coming, Smoke.”
Smoke snorted. “A bounty-hunting Jensen? Now that’s a thought.”
“Don’t you go getting any ideas. We don’t need any more trouble,” Sally said. “Besides, you’re a rancher. Remember?”
Smoke held up his hands in mock surrender. “Believe me, I’ve had my fill of trouble. I’m not looking for more.” His smile disappeared as he turned his gaze toward the sheriff. He scratched his strong, angular chin and asked, “Do I need to stick around and appear before Judge Proctor?”
“Nah,” Monte said. “This is pretty cut-and-dried. The way I figure it, you did the town a favor. You too,” he said, smiling at Sally. “Smoke, you sure married one with a bit of sass in her.”
Smoke laughed, nodding in agreement.
He certainly couldn’t argue that point.
The ride back to the Sugarloaf was seven miles and Smoke didn’t mind the journey one bit. The country was mighty pretty, and he had an even prettier woman by his side. As he guided his black stallion, Drifter, beside the buckboard Sally drove, he took a moment to soak it all in.
She had an infectious smile, which he never tired of. Her brown hair hung in bouncing curls. With Sally set against the backdrop of the rugged Rocky Mountains, Smoke wondered if he’d indeed been shot back in Big Rock and was now in heaven.
“What are you looking at?” Sally said, though her smile hinted that she already knew the answer.
“The woman of my dreams,” he said without hesitation.
She smiled even wider. “And what are you thinking about?”
Smoke laughed. He made a show of looking around and said, “Well, I suppose I could tell you, since there’s no one else around.”
Now Sally laughed loudly. “Easy. We’ve got a few miles to go before we’re back home.”
“Like I said, there’s no one else around.”
Sally cast him one last devilish grin before turning her attention back to the trail before her. Smoke did the same.
They rode in silence for a few minutes before he said, “That was some stunt you pulled back there, walloping that owlhoot like that. You could’ve been hurt.”
“And that little girl could’ve been killed.”
“True,” Smoke admitted. “Reckon I can’t be too upset.”
“Upset? You knew I was a handful when you put the ring on my finger.”
Smoke chuckled. “That I did. And I wouldn’t have you any other way. I just want you to be careful, is all. I intend to grow old with you.”
“Of course,” she said. “I’ll be sitting by your side on the porch in our rockers. We can look out over the Sugarloaf. It will be massive by then.”
“You have big plans,” he said.
“We have big plans,” she said.
“Yep. And they don’t include gunfighting, that’s for sure.”
She gave him a pointed stare. “It really bothered you, what happened back in town?”
He nodded. Drifter continued to pick his way over the trail, staying beside the buckboard, moving at a measured pace. It seemed as if the horses were just as content to enjoy the pleasant evening as night fell around them as Smoke and Sally were.
The falling sun painted the picturesque landscape in pink and yellow hues. A cloud of gnats hovered just off the road. A few grasshoppers leaped in the brushy grass to Smoke’s left. Smoke sucked in a lungful of air and held it a moment, enjoying the smell of the upcoming summer. Something about this time of year called to him. Something peaceful. Thinking about peace, he said, “I just hope this valley is tamed one day, and sooner rather than later. I’ve had more than enough gunplay to last me a lifetime.”
“There will be peace around these parts soon enough,” she said. “Men like you and Preacher have worked hard to make this land safe for decent folks. One day, our children will thank you for it.”
Smoke smiled once again. He sure liked the sound of that.
Of course, if they turned out anything like their pa—or ma, for that matter—they’d keep him and Sally on their toes.
They finished their trip in silence, content to simply be in each other’s presence. The relaxing ride did wonders in washing away the unpleasantness that had occurred back in town, and by the time they arrived home, it was already nothing but a memory.
That peacefulness didn’t last long, though. Upon riding up to the house, Smoke realized they had company. Two saddle mounts he didn’t recognize, along with a couple of pack animals, were tied in front of the log ranch house.
Something stirred deep inside his stomach, telling him that all was not well. He remembered that realization he’d had back in town when the shooting had started.
Trouble just had a way of finding him.
Smoke relaxed when he saw the visitors sitting on the porch and realized who they were. His good-natured laugh cut the night silence as he swung down from his horse and started for the steps.
“Audie? Nighthawk? What are you two doing here?”
Some of his excitement faded when his old friends didn’t respond with smiles of their own. Even in the fading light, Smoke could see sorrow etched on their weathered faces. Something else was there, too. Something in their eyes.
Something that resembled rage.
“What’s going on?” Smoke said.
By now, Sally was off the buckboard and at Smoke’s side. Pearlie Fontaine, Smoke’s friend and right-hand man on the Sugarloaf, had been waiting on the porch, too. He now stood with the others and spoke first.
“Smoke, I’ll take care of the horses and the buckboard. Why don’t you head inside. I’ve got a pot of coffee going. Have some supper left, too, if you’re hungry.”
“Thanks, Pearlie, but it was getting so late by the time we left town that we grabbed a bite at the café. What’s going on here?”
Pearlie looked to Nighthawk and then Audie before heading to the horses. “I’ll get these animals squared away.”
Smoke handed him Drifter’s reins, but kept his eyes on the two visitors.
Age had taken some of Nighthawk’s height, but not much. Smoke knew that an enemy only underestimated the deadly and taciturn Crow warrior to their detriment. He was as tough as they came. Smoke doubted anyone would actually take him lightly. Even in his seventies, he was a large, powerfully built man who appeared and moved as if he were twenty years younger.
His close frien. . .
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