Live by the West, Die by the West
In one volume: two Western adventures from the New York Times–bestselling Smoke Jensen series, featuring the heroic, gunslinging frontiersman.
Triumph of the Mountain Man
In a land of opportunity, there will be opportunists. But few are as vicious, cruel—or flat-out evil—as Clifton Satterly. This power-hungry robber baron has set his sights on Tua Pueblo, a quiet town in the New Mexico Territory. He plans to seize the timber-rich land through brute force and strip it clean with slave labor. But there’s one thing he didn’t plan on: a one-man wall of resistance named Smoke Jensen . . .
Journey of the Mountain Man
When it comes to outbursts of violence in the Old West, there’s nothing worse than a range war. They’re fueled by greed, fanned by gunfire, and fated to end in bloodshed, which is why Smoke Jensen would just as soon keep his distance. But when his cousin Fae is involved, he’s got no choice but to strap on his Colts, team up with four old friends—and get ready for a hundred-gun showdown. This is going to be one hell of a fight . . .
Release date: February 26, 2019
Print pages: 576
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Live by the West, Die by the West
William W. Johnstone
“I didn’t think you had any living relatives, except for your sister.”
“I didn’t either. But then I forgot about Pa’s brother. He was supposed to have gotten killed at Chancellorsville, back in ’63. I guess this letter came from his kids. It would have to be; it’s signed Fae Jensen.”
“I wonder how they knew where to write?” Sally asked. “Big Rock is not exactly the hub of commerce, culture, and industry.”
The man laughed at that. The schoolteacher in his wife kept coming out in the way she could put words together.
It was 1882, in the high-up country of Colorado. The cabin had recently been remodeled: two new rooms added for Louis Arthur and Denise Nicole Jensen. The twins were approaching their first birthday.
And the man called Smoke was torn between going to the aid of a family member he had never seen and staying at home for the birthday party.
“You have to go, Smoke,” Sally spoke the words softly.
“Gibson, in the Montana Territory.” The tall, wide-shouldered and lean-hipped man shook his head. “A long way from home. On what might be a wild goose hunt. Probably is. I don’t even know where Gibson is.”
Sally once more opened the letter and read it aloud. The handwriting was definitely that of a woman, and a woman who had earned high marks in penmanship.
Respectfully, your cousin
“Have you ever heard of either of those men, Smoke?”
“McCorkle. He came into that country twenty years or more ago. Started the Circle Double C. He’s a hard man, but I never heard of him riding roughshod over a woman.”
“How about this Dooley Hanks?”
Smoke shook his head. “The name sort of rings a bell. But it isn’t ringin’ very loud.”
“When will you be leaving, honey?”
He turned his brown eyes on her, eyes that were usually cold and emotionless. Except when he looked at her. “I haven’t said I was going.”
“I’ll be fine, Smoke. We’ve got some good hands and some good neighbors. You don’t have to worry about me or the babies.” She held up the letter. “They’re blood kin, honey.”
He slowly nodded his head. “I’ll get things squared away around the Sugarloaf, and probably pull out in about three days.” He smiled. “If you just insist that I go.”
She poked him in the ribs and ran laughing out of the room.
“That’s him,” the little boy said to his friend, visiting from the East. “That’s the one ever’body writes about in them penny dreadfuls. That’s Smoke Jensen.”
Smoke tied his horse to the hitchrail in front of the Big Rock Guardian and went inside to speak with Haywood Arden, owner and editor.
“He sure is mean-lookin’,” the boy from back East said. “And he really does wear them guns all whopper-jawed, don’t he?”
The first thing Haywood noticed was Smoke wearing two guns, the left-hand .44 worn butt forward for a cross draw, the right-hand .44 low and tied down.
“Expecting trouble, Smoke?”
“Not around here. Just getting used to wearing them again. I’ve got to take a trip, Haywood. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone. Probably most of the spring and part of the summer. I know Sheriff Carson is out of town, so I’d be beholden if you’d ask him to check in with Sally from time to time. I’m not expecting any trouble out there; Preacher Morrow and Bountiful are right over the ridge and my hands would fight a grizzly with a stick. I’d just feel better if Monte would drop by now and then.”
“I’ll sure do it, Smoke.” He had a dozen questions he’d like to ask, but in the West, a man’s business was his own.
Smoke stuck out his hand. “See you in a few months, Haywood. Give Dana my best.”
Haywood watched the tall, broad-shouldered, ruggedly handsome man stroll up the boardwalk toward the general store. Smoke Jensen, the last mountain man. The hero of dozens of dime novels. The fastest gun in the West. A man who never wanted the title of gunfighter, but who at sixteen years of age was taken under the tutelage of an old he-coon named Preacher. The old mountain man had taught the boy well, and the boy had grown into one of the most feared and respected men in the West.
No one really knew how many outlaws and murderers and gunslingers and highwaymen had fallen under Smoke’s thundering. 44’s. Some said fifty, others said two hundred. Smoke himself didn’t really know for sure.
But Haywood knew one thing for a fact: if Smoke Jensen had strapped on his guns, and was going on a journey, it would darn sure be interesting when he reached his destination.
Interesting and deadly.
The next morning Smoke saddled a tough mountain-bred horse named Dagger—the outline of a knife was on the animal’s left rump—checked his canvased and tied-down supplies on the pack horse, and went back into the cabin.
The twins were still sleeping as their father slipped into their rooms and softly kissed each child’s cheek. He stepped back out into the main room of the cabin—the den, as Sally called it. “Sally, I don’t know what I’m riding into this time. Or how long I’ll be gone.”
She smiled at him. “Then I’ll see you when you get back.”
They embraced, kissed, and Smoke stepped out the door, walking to the barn. With the pack horse rope in his left hand, Smoke lifted his right hand in farewell, picked up the reins, and pointed Dagger’s nose toward the north.
Sally watched him until he was out of sight, then with a sigh, turned and walked into the cabin, quietly closing the door behind her.
Smoke had dressed warmly, for it was still early spring in the high lonesome, and the early mornings and nights were cold. But as the sun touched the land with its warming rays, he would shed his heavy lined jacket and travel wearing a buckskin jacket, made for him by the squaws of Indian friends.
He traveled following a route that kept the Rocky Mountains to his left and the Medicine Bow Mountains to his right. He crossed the Continental Divide and angled slightly west. He knew this country, and loved it. Preacher had first shown this country to him, back in the late sixties, and Smoke had fallen in love with it. The columbine was in early bloom, splashing the countryside in blue and lavender and white and purple.
Smoke’s father, Emmett Jensen, was buried at Brown’s Hole, up near the Utah line, in the northwest corner of Colorado. Buried lying atop thousands and thousands of dollars in gold. No one except Smoke and Preacher knew that, and neither one of them had any intention of spreading it about.
Old Preacher was in his early eighties, at least, but it had filled Smoke with joy and love to learn that he was still alive.
Cantankerous old billy-goat!
On his third night out, Smoke made camp halfway between Rabbit Ears Pass and Buffalo Pass, in the high-up country of the Rockies. He had caught some trout just before dusk dropped night on the land and was frying them in a dollop of lard when he saw Dagger’s ears come up.
Smoke set the frying pan away from the flames, on a part of the circle of stones around the flames, and slipped back a few feet from the fire and put a hand on his Winchester .44.
“Hallo, the fire!” the voice came out of the darkness. “I’m friendly as a little wolf cub but as hongry as a just woke-up bar.”
Smoke smiled. But his hand did not leave his Winchester. “Then come on in. I’ll turn no hungry man away from a warm fire and a meal.”
The stranger came out of the brush, keeping one hand in view, the other hand tugging at the lead rope which was attached to a reluctant donkey. “I’m aheadin’ for the tradin’ post on the Illinois,” he said, stripping the gear from the donkey’s back and hobbling the animal so it could graze and stay close. “Ran slap out of food yesterday and ain’t seen no game atall.”
“I have plenty of fish and fried potatoes and bread,” Smoke told him. “Spread your blanket and sit.” Smoke poured him a tin cup of coffee.
“Kind of you, stranger. Kind. I’m called Big Foot.” He grinned and held up a booted foot. “Size fourteen. Been up in Montana lookin’ for some color. Got snowed in. Coldest damn place I ever been in my life.” He hooked a piece of bread and went to gnawing.
“I run a ranch south of here. The Sugarloaf. Name’s Jensen.”
Big Foot choked on his bread. When he finally got it swallowed, he took a drink of coffee. “Smoke Jensen?” he managed to gasp.
“Aunt Fanny’s drawers!”
Smoke smiled and slid the skillet back over the flames, dumping in some sliced potatoes and a few bits of some early wild onions for flavor. “Where’bouts in Montana?”
“All around the Little Belt Mountains. East of the Smith River.”
“Is that anywhere close to Gibson?”
“Durn shore is. And that’s a good place to fight shy of, Smoke. Big range war goin’ on. Gonna bust wide open any minute.”
“Seems to me I heard about that. McCorkle and Hanks, right?”
“Right on the money. Dooley Hanks has done hired Lanny Ball, and McCorkle put Jason Bright on the payroll. I reckon you’ve heard of them two?”
“Killers. Two-bit punks who hire their guns.”
Big Foot shook his head. “You can get away with sayin’ that, but not me. Them two is poison fast, Smoke. They’s talk about that Mex gunhawk, Diego, comin’ in. He’s ’pposed to be bringing in half a dozen with him. Bad ones.”
“Probably Pablo Gomez is with him. They usually double-team a victim.”
“Say! You’re right. I heard that. They gonna be workin’ for Hanks.”
Smoke served up the fish and potatoes and bread and both men fell to it.
When the edges had been taken off their hunger, Smoke asked, “Town had to be named for somebody . . . who’s Gibson?”
“Well, it really ain’t much of a town. Three, four stores, two saloons, a barber shop, and a smithy. I don’t know who Gibson is, or was, whatever.
“Well, sort of. Got a real prissy feller teachin’ there. Say! His name’s Jensen, too. Parnell Jensen. But he ain’t no kin to you, Smoke. Y’all don’t favor atall. Parnell don’t look like nothin’!”
Parnell was his uncle’s middle name.
“But Parnell’s sister, now, brother, that is another story.”
Smoke dropped in more lard and more fish and potatoes. He sopped up the grease in his tin plate with a hunk of bread and waited for Big Foot to continue.
“Miss Fae would tackle a puma with a short switch. She ain’t no real comely lass, but that ain’t what’s keepin’ the beaux away. It’s that damn temper of her’n. Got her a tongue you could use for a skinnin’ knife. I seen and heared her lash out at that poor brother of her’n one time that was plumb pitiful. Made my old donkey draw all up. He teaches school and she runs the little ranch they got. Durnest mixed-up mess I ever did see. That woman rides astraddle! Plumb embarrassin’!”
Big Foot ate up everything in sight, then picked up the skillet and sopped it out with a hunk of bread. He poured another cup of coffee and with a sigh of contentment, leaned back and rolled a smoke. “Mighty fine eats, Smoke. Feel human agin.”
“Where you heading, Big Foot?”
“Kansas. I’m givin’ ’er up. I been prowlin’ this countryside for twenty-five years, chasin’ color. Never found the motherlode. Barely findin’ enough color to keep body and soul alive. My brother’s been pesterin’ me for years to come hep work his hog farm. So that’s where I’m headin’. Me and Lucy over yonder. Bes’ burro I ever had. I’m gonna retire her; just let ’er eat and get fat. You?”
“Heading up to Montana to check out some land. I don’t plan on staying long.”
“You fight shy of Gibson, now, Smoke. They’s something wrong with that town.”
“How do you mean that?”
“Cain’t hardly put it in words. It’s a feel in the air. And the people is crabby. Oh, most go to church and all that. But it’s . . . well, they don’t like each other. Always bickerin’ about this and that and the other thing. The lid’s gonna blow off that whole county one of these days. It’s gonna be unpleasant when it do.”
“How about the sheriff?”
“He’s nearabouts a hundred miles away. I never put eyes on him or any of his deputies. Ain’t no town marshal. Just a whole bunch of gunslicks lookin’ hard at one another. When they start grabbin’ iron, it’s gonna be a sight to see.”
Big Foot drank his coffee and lay back with a grunt. “And I’ll tell you something else: that Fae Jensen woman, her spread is smack in the middle of it all. She’s got the water and the graze, and both sides wants it. Sharp tongue and men’s britches an’ all . . . I feel sorry for her.”
“She have hands?”
“Had a half a dozen. Down to two now. Both of them old men. Hanks and McCorkle keep runnin’ off anyone she hires. Either that or just outright killin’ them. Drug one young puncher, Hanks’s men did. Killed him. But McCorkle is not a really mean person. He just don’t like Hanks. Nothin’ to like. Hanks is evil, Smoke. Just plain evil.”
Come the dawning, Smoke gave Big Foot enough food to take him to the trading post. They said their goodbyes and each went their own way: one north, one east.
Smoke pondered the situation as he rode, trying to work out a plan of action. Since he knew only a smattering of what was going on, he decided to go in unknown and check it out. He took off his pistols and tucked them away in his supplies. He began growing a mustache.
Just inside Wyoming, Smoke came up on the camp of half a dozen riders. It took him but one glance to know what they were: gunhawks.
“Light and set,” one offered, his eyes appraising Smoke and deciding he was no danger. He waved toward the fire. “We got beef and beans.”
“Jist don’t ask where the meat come from,” a young man said with a mean grin.
“You talk too much, Royce,” another told him. “Shut up and eat.” He looked at Smoke. “Help yourself, stranger.”
“Thanks.” Smoke filled a plate and squatted down. “Lookin’ for work. Any of you boys know where they’re hirin’?”
“Depends on what kind of work you’re lookin’ for,” a man with a long scar on the side of his face said.
“Punchin’ cows,” Smoke told him. “Breakin’ horses. Ridin’ fence. Whatever it takes to make a dollar.”
Smoke had packed away his buckskin jacket and for a dollar had bought a nearly worn-out light jacket from a farmer, frayed at the cuffs and collar. He had deliberately scuffed his boots and dirtied his jeans.
“Can’t help you there,” the scar-faced man said.
Smoke knew the man, but doubted the man knew him. He had seen him twice before. His name was Lodi, from down Texas way, and the man was rattlesnake quick with a gun.
“How come you don’t pack no gun?” Royce asked.
Smoke had met the type many times. A punk who thought he was bad and liked to push. Royce wore two guns, both tied down low. Fancy guns: engraved .45 caliber Peacemakers.
“I got my rifle,” Smoke told him. “She’ll bang seventeen times.”
“I mean a short gun,” Royce said irritably.
“One in the saddlebags if I need it. I don’t hunt trouble, so I ain’t never needed it.”
One of the other gunhands laughed. “You got your answer, Royce. Now let the man eat.” He cut his eyes to Smoke. “What be your name?”
“Kirby.” He knew his last name would not be asked. It was not a polite question in the West.
“You look familiar to me.”
“I been workin’ down on the Blue for three years. Got the urge to drift.”
“I do know the feelin’.” He rose to his boots and started packing his gear.
These men, with the possible exception of Royce, were range-wise and had been on the owlhoot trail many times, Smoke concluded. They would eat in one place, then move on several miles before settling in and making camp for the night. Smoke quickly finished his beef and beans and cleaned his plate.
They packed up, taking everything but the fire. Lodi lifted his head. “See you, puncher.”
Smoke nodded and watched them ride away. To the north. He stayed by the fire, watching it burn down, then swung back into the saddle and headed out, following their trail for a couple of miles before cutting east. He crossed the North Platte and made camp on the east side of the river.
He followed the Platte up to Fort Fred Steele, an army post built in 1868 to protect workers involved in the building of the Union Pacific railroad. There, he had a hot bath in a wooden tub behind a barber shop and resupplied. He stepped into a café and enjoyed a meal that he didn’t have to cook, and ate quietly, listening to the gossip going on around him.
There had been no Indian trouble for some time; the Shoshone and the Arapahoe were, for the most part, now settled in at the Wind River Reservation, although every now and then some whiskeyed-up bucks would go on the prowl. They usually ended up either shot or hanged.
Smoke loafed around the fort for a couple of days, giving the gunhands he’d talked with ample time to get gone farther north.
And even this far south of the Little Belt Mountains, folks knew about the impending range war, although Smoke did not hear any talk about anyone here taking sides.
He pulled out and headed for Fort Caspar, about halfway between Fort Fetterman and Hell’s Half Acre. The town of Casper would become reality in a few more years.
At Fort Caspar, Smoke stayed clear of a group of gunslicks who were resupplying at the general store. He knew several in this bunch: Eddie Hart, Pooch Matthews, Golden. None of them were known for their gentle, loving dispositions.
It was at Fort Caspar that he met a young, down-at-the-heels puncher with the unlikely handle of Beans.
“Bainbridge is the name my folks hung on me,” Beans explained with a grin. “I was about to come to the conclusion that I’d just shoot myself and get it over with knowin’ I had to go through the rest of my life with everybody callin’ me Bainbridge. A camp cook over in the Dakotas started callin’ me Beans. He didn’t have no teeth, and evertime he called my name, it come out soundin’ like Beans-Beans. So Beans it is.”
Beans was one of those types who seemed not to have a care in the world. He had him a good horse, a good pistol, and a good rifle. He was young and full of fire and vinegar . . . so what was there to worry about?
Smoke told him he was drifting on up into Montana. Beans allowed as how that was as good a direction as any to go, so they pulled out before dawn the next day.
With his beat-up clothes and his lip concealed behind a mustache and his hair now badly in need of a trim, Smoke felt that unless he met someone who really knew him, he would not be recognized by any who had only bumped into him casually.
“You any good with that short gun?” Smoke asked.
“Man over in Utah didn’t think so. I rattled my hocks shortly before the funeral.”
Now, there was two ways to take that. “Your funeral or his?”
“He was a tad quicker, but he missed.”
On the third night out, Beans finally said what he’d been mullin’ about all day. “Kirby . . . there’s something about you that just don’t add up.”
“Yeah. Now, to someone who just happened to glance over at you and ride on, you’d appear to be a drifter. Spend some time on the trail with you, and a body gets to thinkin’.”
Smoke stirred the beans and laid the bacon in the pan. He poured them both coffee and waited.
“You got coins in your pocket and greenbacks in your poke. That saddle don’t belong to no bum. That Winchester in your boot didn’t come cheap. And both them horses are wearin a brand like I ain’t never seen. Is that a circle double snake or what?”
“Circle Double-S.” As his spread had grown, Smoke had changed his brand. S for Smoke, S for Sally. It was registered with the brand commission.
“There ain’t no ‘S’ in Kirby.” Beans noted.
“Maybe my last name is Smith.”
“Ain’t but one ‘S’ there.”
“You do have a point.” Beans was only pointing out things that Smoke was already aware of. “How far into Montana are you planning on going?”
“Well,” Beans grinned, “I don’t know. Taggin’ along with you I found that the grub’s pretty good.”
“You’re aware of the impending range war in Montana?”
“There’s another thing that don’t ring true, Kirby. Sometimes you talk like a schoolteacher. Now I know that don’t necessarily mean nothin’ out here, but it do get folks to thinkin’. You know what I mean?”
Smoke nodded and turned the bacon.
“And them jeans of yours is wore slick on the right side, down low on the leg. You best get you some other britches or strap that hogleg back on.”
“You don’t miss much, do you, Beans?”
“My folks died with the fever when I was eight. I been on my own ever since. Goin’ on nineteen years. Startin’ out alone, that young, a body best get savvy quick.”
“My real name is Kirby, Beans.”
“You didn’t answer my question about whether you knew about the range war?”
“I heard of it, yeah. But I don’t hire my gun. Way I had it figured, with most of the hands fightin’, them rich ranchers is gonna need somebody just to look after the cattle.” He grinned. “That’s me!”
“I’d hate to see you get tied up in a range war, Beans, ’cause sooner or later, you’re gonna have to take a stand and grab iron.”
“Yeah, I know. But I don’t never worry about bridges until I come to them. Ain’t that food about fitten to eat?”
They were lazy days, and the two men rode easy; no reason to push. Smoke was only a few years older than Beans—chronologically speaking; several lifetimes in experience—and the men became friends as they rode.
Spring had hit the high country, and the hills and valleys were blazing in God’s colors. The men entered Johnson County in the Wyoming Territory, rode into Buffalo, and decided to hunt up a hot bath; both were just a bit on the gamey side.
After a bath and a change of clothes, Smoke offered to buy the drinks. Beans, with a grin, pointed out the sign on the barroom wall: “Don’t forget to write your mother, boys. Whether you are worth it or not, she is thinking of you. Paper and inveelopes free. So is the picklled eggs. The whiskey ain’t.”
“You got a ma, Kirby?”
“Beans, everybody has a mother!” Smoke grinned at the man.
“I mean . . . is she still alive?” He flushed red.
“No. She died when I was just a kid, back in Missouri.”
“I thought I smelled a Missouri puke in here.” The voice came from behind them.
Smoke had not yet tasted his whiskey. He placed the shot glass back on the bar as the sounds of chairs being pushed back reached him. He turned slowly.
A bear of a man sat at a table. Even sitting down he was huge. Little piggy eyes. Mean eyes. Bully was invisibly stamped all over him. His face looked remarkably like a hog.
“You talking to me, Pig-Face?” Smoke asked.
Big Pig stood up and held open his coat. He was not wearing a gun. Smoke opened his jacket to show that he was not armed.
Beans stepped to one side.
“I think I’ll tear your head off,” Big Pig snorted.
Smoke leaned against the bar. “Why?”
The question seemed to confuse the bully. Which came as no surprise to Smoke. Most bullies could not be classified as being anywhere close to mental giants.
“For fun!” Big Pig said.
Then he charged Smoke, both big hands balled into fists that looked like hams. Smoke stepped to one side just at the last possible split second and Big Pig crashed into the bar. His bulk and momentum tore the rickety bar in half and sent Big Pig hurling against the counter. Whiskey bottles and beer mugs and shot glasses were splintered from the impact. The stench of raw whiskey and strong beer filled the smoky barroom.
Hollering obscenities and roaring like a grizzly with a sore paw, Big Pig lumbered and stumbled to his feet and swung a big fist that would’ve busted Smoke’s head wide open had it landed.
Smoke ducked under the punch and sidestepped. The force of Big Pig’s forward motion sent him staggering and slipping across the floor. Smoke picked up a chair and just as Big Pig turned around, Smoke splintered the wooden chair across his teeth.
Big Pig’s boots flew out from under him and he went crashing to the floor, blood spurting from smashed lips and cuts on his face. But Smoke saw that Pig was a hard man to keep down. Getting to his feet a second time, Pig came at a rush, wide open. Smoke had already figured out that the man was no skilled slugger, relying on his enormous strength and his ability to take punches that would have felled a normal man.
Smoke hit him flush on the beak with a straight-from-the-shoulder right. The nose busted and the blood flew. Big Pig snorted away the pain and blood and backhanded Smoke, knocking him against a wall. Smoke’s mouth filled with the copper taste of blood.
Yelling, falsely sensing that victory was his, Pig charged again. Smoke dropped to his knees and drove his right fist straight up into the V of Big Pig’s legs.
Pig howled in agony and dropped to the floor, both hands cupping his injured parts. Still on his knees, Smoke hit the man on the side of the jaw with everything he could put into the punch. This time, Big Pig toppled over, down, but still a hell of a long way from being out.
Spitting out blood, Smoke got to his feet and backed up, catching his breath, readying himself for the next round that he knew was coming.
Big Pig crawled to his feet, glaring at Smoke. But his eyes were filled with doubt. This had never happened to him. He had never lost a fight; not in his entire life.
Smoke suddenly jumped at the man, hitting him with both fists, further pulping the man’s lips and flattening his snout.
Pig swung and Smoke grabbed the thick wrist with both hands and turned and slung the man, spinning Big Pig across the room. Pig crashed into the wall and went right through it, sailing across the warped boardwalk and landing in a horse trough.
Smoke stepped through the splintered hole in the wall and walked to the trough. He grabbed Big Pig’s head and forced it down into the water, holding him there. Just as it appeared the man would drown, Smoke pulled the head out, pounded it with his fists, then grabbed the man by his hair and once more forced the head under water.
Finally, Big Pig’s struggling ceased. Smoke wearily hauled him out of the water and left him draped half in, half out of the trough. Big Pig was breathing, but that was about all.
Smoke sat down on the edge of the boardwalk and tried to catch his breath.
The boardwalk gradually filled with people, all of them staring in awe at Smoke. One man said, “Mister, I don’t know who you are, but I’d have bet my spread that you wouldn’t have lasted a minute against old Ring, let alone whip him.”
Smoke rubbed his aching leg. “I’d hate to have to do it again.”
Beans squatted down beside Smoke. When he spoke his voice was low. “Kirby, I don’t know who you really are, but I shore don’t never want to make you mad.”
Smoke looked at him. “Hell, I’m not angry!” He pointed to the man called Ring. “He’s the one who wanted to fight, not me.
“Lord, have mercy!” Beans said. “All this and you wasn’t even mad.”
Ring groaned and heaved himself out of the horse trough.
Smoke picked up a broken two-by-four and walked over to where Ring lay on the soaked ground. “Mister Ring, I want your attention for a moment. If you have any thoughts at all about getting up off that ground and having a go at me, I’m going to bust your head wide open with this two-by-four. You understand all that?”
Ring rolled over onto his back and grinned up at Smoke. One eye was swollen shut and his nose and lips were a mess. He held up a hand. “Hows ’bout you and me bein’ friends. I shore don’t want you for an enemy!”
The three of them pulled out the next morning, Ring riding the biggest mule Smoke had ever seen.
“Satan’s his name,” Ring explained. “Man was going to kill him till I come along. I swapped him a good horse and a gun for him. One thing, boys: don’t never get behind him if you’ve got a hostile thought. He’ll sense it and kick you clear into Canada.”
There was no turning Ring back. He had found someone to look up to in Smoke. And Smoke had found a friend for life.
“I just can’t handle whiskey,” Ring said. “I can drink beer all day long and get mellow. One drink of whiskey and I’ll turn mean as a snake.”
“I figured you were just another bully,” Beans said.
“Oh, no! I love everybody till I get to drinkin’ whiskey. Then I don’t even like myself.”
“No more whiskey for you, Ring,” Smoke told him.
“Yes, sir, Mister Kirby. Whatever you say is fine with me.”
They were getting too far east, so when they left Buffalo, they cut west and crossed the Bighorn Mountains, skirting north of Cloud Peak, the thirteen-thousand-foot mountain rearing up majestically, snowcapped year-round. Cutting south at Granite Pass, the men turned north, pointing their horses’ noses toward Montana Territory.
“Mister Kirby?” Ring asked.
“Just Kirby, Ring. Please. Just Kirby.”
“OK . . . Kirby. Why is it we’re going to Montana?”
“Seeing the sights, Ring.”
“OK. Whatever you say. I ain’t got nothin’ but time.”
“We might find us a job punchin’ cows,” Beans said.
“I don’t know nothin’ about cows,” Ring admitted. “But I can make a nine-pound hamm
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