Johnstone Country. Where Legends Are Born.
Before he became known as “The Last Mountain Man,” Smoke Jensen and his bride Sally were hardworking ranchers on the Colorado frontier. This is a story of the early years. When times were hard, tensions were high, and guns were the law. . . .
WHEN THE SHOOTING STARTS
For Smoke and Sally Jensen, the Sugarloaf Ranch is the American Dream come true. A glorious stretch of untamed land near the Colorado-Kansas border, it’s the perfect place to stake their claim, raise some cattle, and start a new family. But when a man claiming to be an army colonel arrives in Big Rock—with a well-armed militia—the Jensens’ dream becomes a living nightmare. This stranger calls himself Colonel Lamar Talbot. He’s come to warn them about a looming war with the Cheyenne Indians. And only he can save them from a bloody massacre—by launching a counterattack that’s even bloodier. . . .
Smoke and Sally aren’t sure they trust him. They suspect the colonel and his men are nothing more than brutal vigilantes with a hidden agenda of their own. But the Cheyenne war parties are a very real threat. The tribe’s charismatic leader, Black Drum, is launching raids on local ranches, farms, and the railroads, too. Every day, the violence gets worse and the war moves closer—until it reaches the Sugarloaf Ranch. That’s when Smoke grabs his guns. That’s when the shooting starts—and the final battle begins. . . .
Release date: May 24, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 352
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When the Shooting Starts
William W. Johnstone
The loud, boisterous voice made Smoke Jensen come to a halt on the boardwalk. It had been a good while since he’d heard the name Buck West. When he stopped using it, he had figured he’d probably never hear it again.
But now here it was, coming from the mouth of the tall, rawboned man striding along the boardwalk toward him. The man’s ugly face was wreathed in a grin. He wore a duster over canvas trousers, suspenders, and a flannel shirt. The brim of his battered old hat was turned up in front.
A holstered Colt swung on the man’s right hip. Another revolver was stuck in his waistband on the left side. He had a lean, wolfish look about him that came from riding a lot of dark, lonely trails. Hoot-owl trails, some called them. Folks had started using the word “owlhoot” to describe the men who rode such trails.
Smoke had to search his memory for the name of the man who had just hailed him using that old alias. Sutcliffe, he recalled after a moment. Sort of a distinguished name for a gunman and outlaw. His nickname, Rowdy, fit him better. Smoke didn’t think he had ever heard the man’s real first name.
“Hello, Rowdy,” he said, willing to be friendly as long as he could. “What brings you here?”
“Why, the same thing as you, I expect, Buck,” replied Sutcliffe as he came to a stop and hooked his thumbs in his gun belt. “I heard that a fella name of Franklin was hirin’ guns, so I come to sign on with him. This here is the town of Fontana, ain’t it?”
That took Smoke by surprise. He frowned slightly and said, “You’re a little behind the times. Tilden Franklin has been dead for almost a year. This is Big Rock. There’s not much left of Fontana. It’s fixing to dry up and blow away . . . like the memory of all the trouble that happened there.”
Rowdy Sutcliffe cocked his head to the side and gave Smoke a quizzical stare.
“Franklin’s dead?” he said. “Are you sure about that?”
“Pretty sure,” Smoke said. He didn’t add that he had been the one to hammer three slugs into the chest of the treacherous would-be emperor of this valley.
Sutcliffe peered at him for a moment longer, then shook his head.
“Well, dadgum it. Seems like I’m always late to the party. Don’t know why I didn’t hear about that. O’ course, I was down in old Meh-hee-co for a while, takin’ my ease with the señoritas, so I weren’t really payin’ that much attention to what was goin’ on up here in Colorado.” Sutcliffe sighed. “I reckon I’m plumb outta luck.” Then he brightened and went on, “Unless you got wind o’ some other work for the likes o’ you and me. Shoot, Buck West wouldn’t be here unless hell was about to pop!”
“Sorry, Rowdy. I don’t use the name Buck West anymore, and there’s no gun work to be had around here. Big Rock has grown some since the railroad arrived, but it’s still small enough to be pretty peaceful.”
“Wait.” A frown creased Sutcliffe’s forehead. “Your name ain’t Buck West?”
“That’s right. That’s just what I called myself for a while.”
Back in the days when he had been riding the hoot-owl trails himself, searching for the men he had set out to kill. Men responsible for the deaths of several people he had loved . . .
“Then . . . what is your name?”
“It’s Jensen. Kirby Jensen. Most folks call me Smoke.”
Sutcliffe’s eyes widened. “Smoke Jensen,” he repeated. “Dang. I’ve heard that name, all right. Fella’s supposed to be the fastest draw on the whole frontier. The fightin’est son of a gun anybody ever saw.” He let out a low whistle. “And now, come to find out, Smoke Jensen is none other than my old pard Buck West. What do you know about that?”
Smoke shook his head and said, “We were never pards, Rowdy. We were just in the same places as the same times, every now and then.”
Sutcliffe squinted now, instead of staring, as he said, “Well, that’s an unfriendly sort o’ thing to say. If I weren’t such a forgivin’ fella, I might take offense at it. Could be you’re puttin’ on airs, since you’re really the high-an’-mighty Smoke Jensen.”
“Never claimed to be high-and-mighty,” Smoke replied with a shake of his head. “Just another hombre trying to make his way in life.”
“Looks like you’ve done all right for yourself,” Sutcliffe said, sneering a little.
Smoke wasn’t sure what the gunman meant by that. He certainly wasn’t wearing fancy duds or anything like that, just common range clothes and a dark brown, curled-brim hat that had seen better days perched on his ash-blond hair. His boots still had a little mud clinging to them. The gun belt strapped around his waist and the walnut-butted Colt that rode in the attached holster were well cared for but strictly functional.
He looked like what he was these days, a hardworking, moderately successful rancher with a small but growing spread. He and his friend Pearlie Fontaine did most of the work around the place, with Smoke’s wife, Sally, pitching in when she needed to. She was learning to ride a horse and use a lariat as well as most men.
Lately, there had been enough work to do that Smoke had hired a couple of extra hands, which had prompted Pearlie to start referring to himself as the foreman. The Sugarloaf—the name Smoke had given to the ranch—was still far from being the equal of some of the massive outfits in other parts of the state. Maybe it would grow to that point someday. Smoke hoped so.
One thing he knew for sure was that he never wanted to return to the bloody, dangerous, lone wolf days of his existence as “Buck West” . . . and Rowdy Sutcliffe was a living, breathing reminder of those days, standing right in front of him.
“It was good seeing you again, Rowdy,” he said as he started to turn away. That was stretching the truth considerable-like, but he wanted to end this conversation as smoothly and efficiently as he could.
“Hold on a minute,” Sutcliffe said as he raised his left hand slightly.
Smoke stopped, every muscle taut.
“Least you can do is let me buy you a drink,” Sutcliffe went on. “For old times’ sake.”
Smoke hesitated, then nodded. What harm could that do? Maybe once he’d had a drink with Sutcliffe, the gunman would decide there was no reason for him to remain in Big Rock and would move along.
“Sure,” he said. “Come on down the street with me to Longmont’s. It’s the best saloon in town.”
“Longmont’s,” repeated Sutcliffe as he fell in step along-side Smoke. “That wouldn’t have anything to do with Louis Longmont, would it?”
“Louis owns the place,” Smoke said. “Are you acquainted with him?”
“Nope, just heard tell of him. He’s supposed to be mighty slick with a gun and a deck of cards, both.” Sutcliffe glanced around Big Rock’s main street. “What’s he doin’ in a little wide place in the trail like this?”
Smoke thought the town had grown enough that it was more than a wide place in the trail, but he didn’t waste the time or energy to argue that point. Instead he said, “Louis has put that part of his life behind him, just like I have.”
Sutcliffe clucked his tongue and shook his head. “Smoke Jensen and Louis Longmont, both settlin’ down. Never thought I’d see the day.”
“Living like we used to can only have one end, Rowdy, and it’s not a good one.”
“I hope you ain’t sayin’ I ought to hang up my guns!” Sutcliffe let out a bray of laughter. “That ain’t gonna happen. I’ll take my chances and keep on livin’ like I want to.”
“That’s your choice,” Smoke said solemnly.
“Damn right it is.”
A slight air of tension remained between them as they entered Louis Longmont’s establishment. Louis had told Smoke that eventually he intended to make the place as much a restaurant as it was a saloon, since he appreciated superb cooking as much as he did fine wine, a beautiful woman, a good card game, and a perfectly balanced gun. For now, however, it catered primarily to men’s thirst for beer and whiskey.
Louis stood at the far end of the bar, a glass of bourbon on the hardwood in front of him and smoke curling from the thin black cigar in his mouth. He took the cheroot from his lips and used them to give Smoke a smile of welcome.
“Good afternoon, Smoke,” the gambler said. “What brings you to town today?”
“Sally and I came in to pick up some supplies,” Smoke replied. “She’s over at the mercantile and doesn’t really need my help right now, so I thought I’d stop by and say hello.”
“I’m glad you did.” Coolly, Louis appraised Rowdy Sutcliffe. “Who’s your friend?”
Smoke didn’t correct Louis’s incorrect assumption that Sutcliffe was his friend. He said, “This is Rowdy Sutcliffe.”
“You probably heard of me,” Sutcliffe said with a confidence that bordered on arrogance.
Louis was about to inform Sutcliffe that he had no idea who he was, Smoke could tell. Before that could happen, Smoke went on, “Rowdy and I met up a few times, a while back.”
“Back in the days when you was usin’ the name Buck West,” Sutcliffe added.
Louis cocked an eyebrow. He knew most of the story of Smoke’s background, although Smoke’s laconic nature meant that prying it out of him hadn’t been easy.
“Well, any friend of Smoke’s is a friend of mine, as the old saying goes,” Louis said. “How about a drink, Mr. Sutcliffe? First one’s on the house.”
Sutcliffe grinned and said, “I sure won’t turn that down. I favor rye, if you’ve got it.”
“Indeed we do.” Louis crooked a finger at the bartender and told the man to pour Sutcliffe a shot of rye, then said, “What about you, Smoke?”
“I’d just as soon have coffee, if you’ve got it.”
“We always keep a pot on the stove in the back room. I’m glad most of my customers don’t have your moderate habits, Smoke. I’d go broke!”
“I like to keep a clear head.”
Sutcliffe picked up the glass of rye the bartender set in front of him. He threw back the drink, wiped the back of his other hand across his mouth, and said, “Whiskey don’t muddle me none. I draw just as fast and shoot just as straight, drunk or sober.”
“I hope for your sake you’re right, Mr. Sutcliffe,” said Louis. “Being mistaken about a thing like that could have serious consequences for a man.”
“You mean like he might get hisself shot?” Sutcliffe gestured for the bartender to pour him another drink. The apron glanced at Louis, who gave him a tiny nod. As the bartender splashed more rye in the glass, Sutcliffe snorted disdainfully and went on, “That ain’t gonna happen. I know how good I am.” He picked up the glass and swallowed the second shot of fiery liquor. “I know how good the fellas I have to face down are, too. Ain’t none of ’em that can match me. Not even . . .”
He thumped the empty glass on the bar and sneered. “Not even the high-and-mighty Smoke Jensen.”
Smoke kept his face carefully expressionless in response to Sutcliffe’s challenging tone as he said, “I told you about that high-and-mighty business, Rowdy. I didn’t set out to get any kind of a reputation—”
“But that didn’t stop you from gettin’ one anyway, did it?” Sutcliffe snapped. “Ever’where I go, people talk about Smoke Jensen and how he’s the fastest gun there ever was. Bull!” Sutcliffe raised his left hand and pointed a dirty-nailed index finger at Smoke. “Don’t forget, mister, I knew you when you was nobody! Just a snot-nosed kid packin’ an iron like you know what to do with it. Hell, you ain’t much more’n a kid now.”
“I reckon I’m all grown up,” Smoke said, his voice flat and hard. “I’ve got a wife and everything, and she’s probably waiting for me, so I’ll mosey on. I’d say that it’s been good to see you again, but—”
“You ain’t moseyin’ nowhere,” snarled Sutcliffe. “Not until I’m finished with you. Barkeep, put some more whiskey in that glass!”
Louis Longmont held up a hand to the bartender, motioning for him to disregard Sutcliffe’s order. He said, “Mr. Sutcliffe, I believe you’ve had enough.”
“Why? Because I ain’t paid for that second drink?”
“I don’t care about that. It’s on the house. But I think you should move on now—”
“I know all about you, too, you damn tinhorn,” Sutcliffe interrupted without taking his eyes off Smoke. “You’re supposed to be fast, too. But you ain’t near as fast as me, and once I’m finished with Jensen, I’ll prove it.”
Smoke said, “You and I are already finished. You can still walk out of here, get on your horse, and ride away from Big Rock, Sutcliffe. No harm done.”
“There’s plenty o’ harm! I been away so long, folks probably done forgot all about me.” Sutcliffe’s shoulders hunched a little. His right hand hovered near the Colt on his hip, ready to hook and draw. “But they’ll remember, right enough, once word gets around that I’m the fella who killed Smoke Jensen. Then anybody who needs gun work done will be fallin’ all over theirselves to hire me. Yes, sir, once I outdraw Smoke Jensen clean as a whistle—”
Smoke knew what the words pouring out of Sutcliffe’s mouth were designed to do. They were supposed to anger him and prod him into drawing before he was ready, or else they would distract him, lull him into a split-second of unreadiness when Sutcliffe abruptly made his move.
The rant didn’t accomplish either of those things. Smoke just stood there stonily, and when Sutcliffe broke off and clawed at his gun, Smoke was ready.
The walnut-butted Colt appeared in Smoke’s hand as if by magic. Rowdy Sutcliffe actually was pretty fast on the draw, even with two shots of rye whiskey burning in his belly, but he had barely cleared leather when Smoke’s gun roared. And to tell the truth, Smoke could have shot him a little sooner than that, but he’d waited just to make sure Sutcliffe wouldn’t realize his mistake and try to stop this.
The bullet slammed into Sutcliffe’s chest, twisted him half around, and made him stumble backward against the bar. He would have collapsed if it hadn’t been there to hold him up. A shudder went through him. Blood welled from the corner of his mouth. Still, he stayed on his feet, held up by a combination of rage, stubbornness, and being too dumb to realize he had only seconds to live.
With his left hand, he pulled the second revolver from his waistband. With a gun in each fist, he tried to raise them. Smoke shot him again, this time drilling a neat third eye in the center of his forehead. Both of Sutcliffe’s guns thundered as his fingers spasmed and jerked the triggers, but they were pointed down and hammered their slugs into the sawdust-littered floorboards right in front of his feet. A cloud of powder smoke rose from the weapons, obscuring Sutcliffe’s swaying form as if he were standing behind a dirty window, doing some sort of macabre dance.
Then the guns slipped from nerveless fingers and thudded to the floor, followed a heartbeat later by Sutcliffe’s lifeless husk. He sprawled face down and didn’t even twitch.
Smoke shook his head and started reloading the two chambers he had just emptied.
“We both tried to talk him out of it,” Louis Longmont said into the silence that gripped the room as the echoes of the shots faded away. Louis lifted the cheroot to his mouth and took a puff, then went on, “He simply wouldn’t listen to reason.” He looked like something had just occurred to him. “Were the two of you actually friends at one time, Smoke?”
“Not hardly,” Smoke said as he slid the reloaded Colt back into leather. “He was just another two-bit gun-wolf. There are too many of them in the world.”
“And they all believe it would be a wonderful thing to be the man who killed Smoke Jensen.” Louis smiled humorlessly. “It must be a terrible thing to carry the hopes and dreams of so many around on your shoulders, my friend.”
Around the room, the men who had dived for cover just before the shooting started were beginning to poke their heads back up. Louis waved the hand holding the cheroot to encourage them and raised his voice.
“It’s all over, gentlemen. A round of drinks on the house!”
A short time later, as Smoke walked up to the Big Rock Mercantile, he saw an apron-wearing clerk loading sacks and crates of supplies into the back of the buckboard Sally had parked there earlier. Smoke’s big, powerful black stallion, Drifter, was tied to a nearby hitch rail.
“Howdy, Smoke,” the clerk greeted him. “Miz Jensen’s inside, just finishin’ up her business.” The man placed the keg of nails he was carrying in the buckboard and then dusted off his hands. “Say, I thought I heard a couple of shots up the street a little while ago. You know anything about that?”
“You know me, Stan,” Smoke replied with a smile. “I always try to steer clear of trouble.”
“Uh-huh, sure. I just thought you might—”
“There was a little unpleasantness at Longmont’s,” Smoke admitted. He didn’t see any point in denying what had happened. The story would be all over town in less than an hour, whether he wanted that or not. More than likely, it had spread quite a bit already.
The clerk let out a whistle. “How many of ’em did you have to shoot, Smoke?”
“Just one man. One stubborn, foolish man.”
“Well, he should’a known better than to go up against Smoke Jensen.”
Smoke didn’t reply to that. When he and Sally had first come to this valley, not long after they were married, he had been determined to leave his gunfighting ways behind him. To that end, he had used a different name, one that people wouldn’t associate with either Smoke Jensen or his previous alias Buck West.
Inevitably, though, the truth had come out, and by the time the ruckus with Tilden Franklin and his hired killers was over, everybody in these parts knew who he really was.
And as it turned out, that was a relief. Smoke never had liked secrets, and he was proud of his family name. Keeping quiet about it seemed almost like a slap in the faces of his father Emmett and his brother Luke, both of whom had died in the service of what they believed was right and honorable.
So, for better or worse, he would be Smoke Jensen from now on.
He stepped up on the store’s porch and was about to go in when Sally appeared in the open doorway. She smiled when she saw him, and he was struck once again by just how beautiful this dark-haired young woman really was. She was pretty enough to take a man’s breath away.
But there was a lot more to Sally Reynolds Jensen than just good looks. She was smart as could be, both in book learning and common sense, and possessed of fierce courage that wouldn’t allow her to hesitate in the face of danger. In fact, Smoke wished sometimes that she was a little less courageous and more inclined to be careful.
If she’d been different, though, he might not have fallen so completely in love with her.
“Ready to go?” he asked her.
“I think so. I got everything that was on my list. Did you enjoy your visit with Louis?”
“It was all right, I reckon.” He had lived through the shootout with Sutcliffe, so he couldn’t complain too much about how the visit had gone.
The clerk was still standing on the porch. He said excitedly, ignoring the warning glance Smoke gave him, “Miz Jensen, did you hear the shootin’ while you were inside?”
Sally looked at Smoke and raised her eyebrows. “Shooting?”
“I’ll tell you about it once we’re on the trail,” he said, after scowling for a second at the clerk. The man cleared his throat, looked a little embarrassed, and retreated into the mercantile. Smoke cupped his hand under Sally’s elbow and went on, “Let me give you a hand climbing up there.”
She could have gotten onto the buckboard’s seat just fine by herself, but she let Smoke assist her. Then she picked up the reins attached to the two horses in the team and pulled the brake lever out of its notch. Smoke untied Drifter and swung up into the saddle.
Sally waited until they were out of town and on the trail to the Sugarloaf before she said, “All right, what happened?”
“I ran into a fella I used to know a few years ago, back in the days when I was calling myself Buck West.”
“An old friend?”
“No, but we weren’t enemies, either . . . until he found out my real name and decided that we were.”
Quickly, and without dwelling on the details, he filled her in on the deadly encounter. Sally listened in silence, but she wore a frown of concern.
He concluded by saying, “Monte Carson came down to Louis’s place, took my statement, and sent for the undertaker. That’s the end of it as far as I’m concerned.”
Monte Carson was the sheriff of Big Rock, a former gunman himself who had been on the wrong side in the war a year earlier, until he realized that and threw in with Smoke. After that, with the founding of Big Rock, he had accepted the offer to become the new town’s lawman.
“Does this man Sutcliffe have any friends or relatives who are going to come looking for you to avenge what happened to him?” asked Sally.
“Not that I know of, but honestly, I never really knew the hombre that well.”
Sally sighed as she handled the team and kept the buckboard rolling along the trail while Smoke rode beside the vehicle.
“I know that by now I should be getting used to the fact there are men roaming around who’d like to kill you,” she said. “Your past is what makes you the man you are, and I knew that when I married you.”
“What I used to be doesn’t mean that’s what I’ll always be,” Smoke pointed out.
“No, but it’s hard to get away from all the things that have happened to us, all the things we’ve done. Our history lingers, no matter what we do.”
“That’s like saying folks can’t change.”
“No, not at all,” Sally argued. “But changing the way you go forward doesn’t change everything you’ve done in the past.” She paused, then went on, “Smoke, don’t think I’m saying I regret marrying you. I don’t, not one bit! I love you and I know you don’t go around looking for trouble.”
“But it seems to find me anyway, doesn’t it?”
She smiled and said, “I suppose that’s the way it is with some people. And honestly, I wouldn’t change one thing about you, even if I could! Just let me hope that someday, peace will come to this land.”
“It will. I’m sure of it.” Smoke gazed off into the distance. “It may be a while before it does, though.”
“Well, until then, I’m glad I have Smoke Jensen by my side.”
“And I’m glad to have Sally Jensen by my side.”
They smiled at each other and traveled on, but as he rode, Smoke couldn’t help but think about the things they had said.
He truly believed that peace would come to the frontier someday . . . but there was still a lot of blood to be spilled before that could happen.
On the Kansas plains, not far from the Colorado border, the shadows of a. . .
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