Set in the early days of the Jensen family saga, this gunblazing adventure follows Smoke and Sally from their first year of marriage to the founding of the legendary Sugarloaf Ranch . . .
JOHNSTONE COUNTRY. WHEN SMOKE MET SALLY.
For most couples, the marriage vows end with “‘Til death do us part.” But when Smoke Jensen takes Sally Reynolds as his lawfully wedded wife, it's just the beginning. The tragic deaths of Smoke's first wife and child weigh heavily on his heart. Thankfully, Sally is there to give him the support he needs when they return to Colorado, where it all happened. She's ready to embrace her husband's past—for better or worse—and to welcome his friend Preacher into the family. But when outlaws make an attempt to kidnap a local girl, Sally is forced to use the gun skills she had learned from Smoke to save both of their lives, learning the hard way what it means to be married to a Jensen . . .
Live Free. Read Hard.
Release date: April 27, 2021
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 352
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William W. Johnstone
“You’re a preacher?” Kirby Jensen asked when the old man told him his name.
“Didn’t say I was a preacher. I said that’s my handle. That’s what folks call me.”
Kirby laughed out loud.
“What you laughin’ at, boy?”
“I’m laughing at your name.”
“It ain’t nice to scoff at a man’s name. If I wasn’t a gentle type of man, I might let the hairs on my neck get stiff.”
“Preacher can’t be your real name.”
“Well, no, you’re right about that, but I been called Preacher for so long now that I’ve near ’bout forgot my Christian name. So, Preacher it’ll be. That or nothin’.”
“Where do you live?”
“I live in the high lonesome.”
“Where is the high lonesome?”
“It ain’t so much of a where as it is a thing. It’s whistling wind and the silence of the mountains. And I wouldn’t want to live nowhere else.”
Kirby and his father, Emmett, were traveling across the plains when they first encountered the old mountain man called Preacher. Shortly after that auspicious meeting, the three of them had been trailed and attacked by a Pawnee war party. It was during that battle that Kirby, then only sixteen years old, had discovered his amazing natural talent with firearms, especially handguns, dispatching one of the warriors with a .36 Colt Navy revolver.
Following that ruckus, Preacher had declared that Kirby, having gone through a baptism of fire, could no longer be called a boy despite his young age. And as a man, he needed a man’s name.
“Smoke’ll suit you just fine,” Preacher had said as he looked at Kirby’s ash-blond hair. “So Smoke it’ll be from now on. Smoke Jensen.” The old-timer had chuckled. “Kinda like the sound of it, don’t you?”
That was Kirby Jensen’s introduction to the man who over the next several years would become his mentor, friend, and surrogate father. The latter had come about because Kirby’s real father had left him under the mountain man’s care. On the day his pa had left, he and Kirby had stood in front of the trading post at dawn.
“You do understand my ridin’ off alone, don’t you, boy? There’s some things you’re goin’ to need to learn ’bout livin’ out here, ’n I cain’t think of anybody more able to teach you them things than Preacher. Problem is, it’s goin’ to take you some time to learn all you need to learn, ’n me ’n you both know that I don’t have that much time left. So I aim to leave you here to get your learnin’, while I go out lookin’ for the three men that kilt your brother. You got ’ny problem with that?”
“I reckon not,” Kirby had replied quietly. “I know you’re doin’ what you feel you’ve got to do.”
With his father gone, Kirby lived with and studied under Preacher. He learned how to survive under the most extreme conditions. He could trap and hunt for food, he could make a fire without matches, and he could find water when the average man would give up in despair. He learned how to read, not just the written word—he could already read and write—but he learned how to read nature. He could predict a storm before any obvious sign; he could fathom and react to the actions of wild animals.
“I been seein’ the way you can handle a pistol,” Preacher said. “Ain’t never seen no one your age that was that good with a handgun, and not sure that I’ve seen anyone full grow’d who was any better. That’s another reason to call you Smoke, the way you burn powder faster and more accurate-like than anybody else I ever laid eyes on.
“All famous men needs ’em some kind of a handle, a name other ’n the one they was borned with,” Preacher continued. “I’ve know’d some right famous men in my day, Big Cat Malone, Grizzly Adams, Liver Eatin’ Johnson, Nekked Colter.”
“Naked Colter?” Smoke asked with a laugh. “You really know someone who calls himself Naked?”
“John Colter his name was, ’n he was a part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Fact is, they used him to feed the party ’n to find mountain passes for ’em. Then, after that was all over, he wound up someplace in Montana, where he was jumped by a bunch of Blackfoot Injuns in the middle of the winter. They taken off his clothes, a-thinkin’ he wouldn’t run off, but he done so, ’n he run for miles, nekked as a jaybird.” Preacher laughed. “’N he kilt one of ’em, too. Like I say, all famous men needs ’em a special name.”
“I’m not famous.”
“You’re goin’ to be. Ain’t no doubt in my mind. No doubt a’tall. You’re goin’ to be a famous man someday, the kind of man folks writes books about. I got me a feelin’ ’bout that, ’n my feelin’s ain’t hardly never wrong.”
“I doubt that I’m ever goin’ to be famous,” Smoke said. He smiled. “But I do like the name.”
It had been two years since his pa had ridden off, and Smoke hadn’t heard anything from him in all that time. He wasn’t surprised by that, given that Emmett had written only two letters home the whole time he’d been away during the war.
There was nothing of the boy left in Smoke. He was now a man, fully grown, over six feet tall and with shoulders as wide as an ax handle. He was hard in body, face, and eyes. The bay he had ridden out here hadn’t survived the first year. When his horse had fallen on the ice and broken his leg, Smoke had had to put him down, but Preacher had found another mount for him, a large, evil-tempered Appaloosa. The Indian Smoke bought him from had sold him cheap because he hadn’t been able to break him.
That Indian, as well as the other Indians who knew the animal, were shocked to see the horse bond immediately with Smoke. He was a stallion, and he was mean, his eyes warning any knowledgeable person away. The Appaloosa had, in addition to his distinctive markings—the mottled hide, vertically striped hooves, and pale eyes—a perfectly shaped 7 between his eyes. And that became his name: Seven.
“Smoke, I’ve done learned you about as much as I know how to learn anyone,” Preacher said one summer morning. “There ain’t no doubt in my mind but that you could light in the middle of the mountains some’ers and live as good as me or any other mountain man I ever know’d could. ’N I don’t believe they’s a man alive who could beat you in a gunfight or stand up to you with his fists. But truth to tell, the time of the mountain man is gone. It’s been two years since we had us a Rendezvous, ’n I don’t know if there’ll ever be another ’n. Just be glad you got to see one of ’em when you did.”
“I am glad,” Smoke said. “If I live to be as old a man as you are, I’ll still remember getting to go to that Rendezvous.”
“Whoa now! Are you tellin’ me that’s all you’re goin’ to remember? That you ain’t goin’ to ’member nothin’ else I learned you in all this time?”
Smoke laughed. “I reckon I’ll be remembering plenty of other things, as well.”
Shortly after that conversation, an old mountain man rode up to their camp, hailing them before he got too close to make sure he didn’t get shot out of the saddle.
“You just as ugly as I remembered, Preacher,” he said in the form of a greeting.
“I didn’t think you was even still alive, Grizzly,” Preacher said. “I heard you got et up by a pack o’ wolves. No, wait, that ain’t right. Now that I think back on it, what they said was that you was so old and dried up that the wolves didn’t want nothin’ to do with you.”
Smoke had already learned that mountain men insulted each other whenever possible. It was their way of showing affection.
They were hospitable to each other, too, which meant that Grizzly sat down and shared their food and coffee while he and Preacher swapped tall tales and more insults for at least half an hour.
Then Grizzly said, “I’ve got somethin’ to tell the boy.”
“He ain’t no boy,” Preacher said. “He’s a growed man.” He didn’t seem surprised that Grizzly had brought news.
Smoke waited for whatever Grizzly had to tell him. He had a feeling that it wouldn’t be anything good.
“A man rode into the Hole about two months ago. Strange man he was, ’n all shot up. Dug his own grave. When the time come, I buried him. He’s planted on that there little plain at the base of the high peak on the east side of the canyon. Zenobia Peak, it’s called. You remember it, Preacher?”
Grizzly reached inside his war bag and pulled out a heavy sack and tossed it to Smoke.
“Seein’ as it was your pa, this would be your’n, I reckon,” Grizzly said to Smoke. “What it is, it’s a right smart amount of gold.”
Smoke knew that Grizzly could have kept all the gold and Smoke would have been none the wiser. He also understood the code of the mountain man and knew that if he made any comment on Grizzly’s honesty, Grizzly would be very upset by it. Honesty and honor among such men were expected.
Once more Grizzly dipped into the bag. “And this is a piece of paper with words on it. What it is, is names your pa wrote down so’s you would know what men it was that put lead in him. He said you’d know what to do, but for me to tell you, ‘Don’t do nothin’ rash.’”
His business done, the old man rose to his feet. “I done what I give my word I’d do. Now I’ll be goin’ on.”
Old North Church—Boston, Massachusetts
“One if by land, two if by sea.” All the parishioners of the famous old Episcopal church were aware of their church’s historic role in the Revolutionary War. They had gathered today for the funeral service of Gordon Woodward. It started to rain just as Father E. D. Owen began the funeral, and he used the rain as an illustration.
“You may think that this is nothing but rain falling outside,” Father Owen said. “But if you do think that, you would be wrong. What it is, is God’s tears. Yes, sir, even God is crying that he had to call home a good man like Gordon Woodward.
“Gordon left behind a fine girl, his daughter, Nicole. Nicole is all alone now, because it wasn’t but six months ago that her mother, Edna, died. We must all pray not only that God receives Gordon into His arms, but also that He helps this poor girl get through her grief.”
The rain continued for nearly an hour, and Father Owen, not wanting to subject his flock to the downpour, continued the funeral, talking about what a fine man Gordon was, what a fine woman Edna was, supplementing the eulogies with several random readings from the Scriptures. Then, mercifully, the rain abated, and everyone went outside to the church graveyard.
Fourteen-year-old Nicole Woodward stood at the edge of the grave, looking down at the several inches of water that had collected at the bottom.
The coffin was lowered into the open grave. Father Owen said a few words, then he gave Nicole a handful of dry dirt. She had no idea where the dry dirt had come from, but she was glad she didn’t have to drop mud on her father’s casket.
The ladies of the church had a gathering at the church after the burial, and amid the eating, everyone came over to Nicole to express their sympathy.
“Oh, you poor girl. What will you do now?”
“I will be joining my aunt Amanda and my uncle John in Illinois,” Nicole said. “Just before he died, Papa made arrangements for them to take me in.”
“Illinois? Oh, heavens, that is so far from here. How are you going to get there?”
“By train,” Nicole replied. “I already have my ticket.”
“You’re traveling alone? Aren’t you afraid?”
“No, I’m not afraid.” She no longer had the luxury of fear, Nicole thought.
When the train pulled into the Union Pacific depot, Nicole Woodward looked through the window at the people who were standing on the platform to meet the arrival. It took but a moment to find the person she was looking for, a tall, slender, very attractive woman.
Nicole smiled when she saw her aunt Amanda, and as soon as the train stopped, she stepped down from the car and hurried across the platform to meet her.
“Nicole, my, how you have grown!” Amanda said. “Why, you are a young woman now.”
“I’m fourteen,” Nicole said.
It was a short walk from the depot to the house occupied, but not owned, by John and Amanda Palmer. John worked as a hostler for the stagecoach line, and the house was owned by the company. Part of John’s compensation was to be able to live in the house rent free.
“You poor dear,” Amanda said. “Only fourteen, and having to take care of all the funeral arrangements for your father by yourself. The illness came upon Gordon rather suddenly, didn’t it?”
“Not really,” Nicole said. “The truth is, I don’t think he ever fully recovered from Mama dying last year. It was as if after she died, he just didn’t want to live anymore.”
“Yes, my dear sister’s dying was a loss to all of us. Tell me truthfully, Nicole, did Edna suffer at the end?”
“No,” Nicole said. “Or, if she did, she bore it with such stoicism that nobody knew about it.”
“Oh, how I wish I had been able to come to Boston so that I might have seen her one last time,” Amanda lamented.
“She knew that it wasn’t possible for you to come, and she was all right with it.”
John came home soon after Nicole and her aunt arrived. He greeted Nicole effusively, then said, “I’m so thankful we’re able to take you in, Nicole. I wouldn’t presume to think that we can replace your own parents, but I will say this: as far as Amanda and I are concerned, you are now like the daughter we never had.”
Nicole enjoyed her life in Cairo. It was a riverfront town, being located where the Ohio River joined the mighty Mississippi, and because of that it was a bustling settlement, with something interesting going on all the time.
Despite that, over the next four years she came to realize that her uncle was gripped by a certain restlessness. Because of that, she wasn’t too surprised one day when he came in from his job at the stage line barn and shared some news with both Nicole and Amanda.
“I have bought a fine team of oxen and a stout Studebaker wagon. I’ve also given notice to the stage line. We’ll leave Monday morning.”
“Leave? Leave for where?” Nicole asked.
Amanda smiled at her. “Your uncle and I have been talking about this. We’re going to Hell’s Valley, in Colorado.”
“Hell’s Valley? Heavens, what a frightening name,” Nicole said.
They might have discussed this move with her, she thought, especially if they considered her a daughter. On the other hand, they had provided a home for her over the past four years, and she was old enough now to be considered grown. They might be planning to leave it to her whether or not she accompanied them.
“There’s free land to be had there,” John said. “I can have my own farm.”
“I know that you have lived only here in Cairo and in the city of Boston,” Amanda said. “And the prospect of going to some remote place in the West might frighten you. But we have been planning on this for a long time, and John has his heart set on it.”
“Oh, I’m not at all frightened by the prospect, Aunt Amanda,” Nicole replied honestly. As she had realized back in Boston, after her father’s funeral, fear no longer had much of a place in her life. To be honest, she had an adventurous streak she had never known about until that moment, and she felt it cropping up again now. “Why, I’m looking forward to the adventure.”
“Oh, what a dear, courageous girl you are.”
“We were hoping you’d want to come with us,” John said with a grin. “I believe a whole new life awaits us!”
After learning of the death of his father, Smoke vowed to avenge him and see that justice was meted out to the men responsible for Emmett Jensen’s death.
Preacher’s wise counsel was that Smoke wasn’t ready to set off on that quest for retribution just yet, however. A man full-grown he might be, physically, but he still had much to learn about life on the frontier . . . and Preacher was the man to teach him those things.
As time passed, trouble found Smoke more than once, seeming almost to seek him out, and as he defended himself with the pair of Colt Navy revolvers he wore, his reputation grew. Inevitably, the time came for him to leave his reasonably comfortable life with Preacher and begin tracking down the men he had sworn to kill.
One of them was a big, ugly man with half an ear, Smoke had been told, and that description fit a man called Billy Bartell. Smoke followed his leads and found Bartell in a saloon in the little town in Colorado. With that description, Bartell was hard to miss as he stood at the bar, not twenty feet away.
Bartell sensed someone looking at him and turned toward Smoke. “What the hell are you a-lookin’ at?” he asked in a snarling voice.
“I’m looking at the ugliest low-down varmint I’ve ever seen in my life,” Smoke replied.
Bartell’s response was a derisive laugh. “Hell, you ain’t much more’n a boy—a big ’un, I’ll give you. But with a mouth liken that one you’ve got, you ain’t likely to live long enough to become a man.”
“I’ll live to see the sun set tonight,” Smoke replied. “You won’t.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because you’re fixin’ to draw on me, ’n soon as you do, I’m goin’ to kill you.”
“I’ll say this for you, boy. You got a lot of grit for someone who’s still wet behind the ears. Now, go away ’n just thank your lucky stars you didn’t provoke me into killin’ you.”
Bartell turned back to the bar, as if dismissing Smoke, and Smoke, upset that he couldn’t provoke Bartell into drawing on him, began to wonder how he was going to handle this. He couldn’t kill Bartell in cold blood, but neither could he just walk away from the grim task he had given himself to do.
Then Bartell solved Smoke’s problem, because suddenly, and without warning, Bartell swung back toward him, making a grab for his pistol.
Bartell had the advantage of drawing first, and his many years on the outlaw trail had made him a formidable man with a gun. It wasn’t until after Bartell had already started his draw that Smoke reacted, making a lightning-fast draw of his own. The gun in his hand roared and bucked before Bartell could pull the trigger. The bullet hit Bartell in the chest with the impact of a hammer blow, and he was slammed back against the bar before sliding down. He sat there, leaning back against the bar, his gun hand empty and the unfired gun lying on the floor beside him. He watched as Smoke approached him.
“There ain’t nobody that fast,” Bartell said. He coughed a blood-spewing cough.
“Don’t die yet, Bartell. I want you to know why I killed you.”
“I seen you lookin’ at me, and figured out that you musta seen my picture on one o’ them dodgers, so you don’t have to tell me nothin’. I know this is for the reward.”
“I don’t give a damn about the reward. This was for my father. You hired on with the men who wanted him dead. Now, before you cross the divide . . . where is Angus Shardeen?”
Bartell coughed again, another body-racking cough, bringing up even more blood.
“You know what? I think I am goin’ to tell you where he’s at. Only I ain’t doin’ you no favors, boy, ’cause if you find ’im, he’ll kill you.”
“Where is he?”
“Rattlesnake Canyon,” Bartell said. He tried to laugh, but it turned into another blood-oozing cough. “Yeah, you go on out there ’n after he kills you, me ’n you will be meetin’ again, ’cause I’m goin’ to be holdin’ open a place for you in Hell. By that time, I will have made some friends, ’n I’ll show you around the place.”
There was a rattling sound deep in Bartell’s throat, then his head fell to one side as his eyes, still open, glazed over.
“Anybody know where Rattlesnake Canyon is?” Smoke asked.
Following a lead here and there, Smoke was able to trace Shardeen to a saloon in the little town of Bad Water, not far from Rattlesnake Canyon.
“Shardeen, do you remember a man by the name of Billy Bartell?” Smoke asked.
Shardeen, a big redheaded man with a purple lightning-streak scar on his face, laughed, but there was no humor in the sound.
“Yeah, I remember that dumb son of a buck. Why do you ask?”
“It took me a while to find him. I’m here to arrange a meeting between you and Bartell.”
“Bartell wants to meet with me? Why? Does he need money?”
“Where Bartell is, money is no good.”
“Oh? And where would that be?”
“That would be Hell.”
“I sent him there. And it’s like I said, I’m here to arrange a meeting between the two of you.”
Suddenly, Shardeen understood what Smoke was telling him, and with an angry shout of defiance, he jerked his pistol from its holster.
Because there were several witnesses in the saloon, and he wanted to make certain that everyone perceived the fight as fair, Smoke didn’t even start his draw until Shardeen had his gun out and leveled.
Shardeen, realizing that he had beaten his challenger to the draw, smiled in victory. Then that smile froze into a shocked look of horror as a clap of gun-thunder filled the saloon. Even though Shardeen had gotten his gun out first, Smoke was able to draw and shoot even before Shardeen could pull the trigger.
Shardeen dropped his pistol, put his hands over the wound in his chest, then sank to his knees. He looked up at Smoke.
“Who are you?”
“It doesn’t matter who I am. The only thing that matters is that I got the right man.”
“Right man for—”
Shardeen died without finishing his question or learning why he was on his way to Hell. His face slammed into the sawdust-littered floor, but he didn’t feel it.
Sometime later, Smoke stood at the grave of his murdered father, holding his hat in his hands. He was pleased to see that the markings he had chiseled in the rock-turned-tombstone were still quite legible. Preacher was standing some distance away, having told Smoke that he needed some private time with his pa.
“Pa, I’ve settled some accounts. I’ve killed two of the men who had it coming. I’d like to say that settled everything, but I can’t say that just yet. Not until I take care of the ones truly responsible for your death. I’ve memorized the names. Wiley Potter, Muley Stratton, and Josh Richards. Someday I’ll find them, Pa, and when I do, I’ll make things right. I give you that promise.”
Smoke stood there in silence for another moment, then he put his hat on and started back toward Preacher.
“Got things settled with your pa?” Preacher asked when Smoke walked away from the grave.
“He was real proud of you, boy. Same as I am.”
The lump in Smoke’s throat wouldn’t let him reply.
. . .
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