Johnstone Country. The Law of the Last Man Standing
His country burning with war, his family shattered, a young man strikes off on his own and builds a legend with his fists, a pistol, knife, and long gun. This collection includes the classic westerns Trail of the Mountain Man and Return of the Mountain Man, long unavailable and here together for the first time in one action-packed volume . . .
Where There's Gold, There's Blood, Bullets, and Smoke
When the Missouri farm boy named Jensen came west, he started fighting, surviving, and learning every brutal step of the way. He learned from a mountain man named Preacher. He learned from Indians. And from outlaws. And he learned that nothing burns the souls of men faster than the lure of glimmering gold. From one ramshackle frontier mountain town to another, Smoke sees gold strikes—and gold fever—drawing crooks and cold-blooded killers from across the nation.
Faced with an explosion of horrifying violence—along with some demons from his past—Smoke has no choice but to lay down the law. Once he does, it doesn't matter how many men and guns the outlaws bring. Because if Smoke Jensen has learned anything, it's this: in a vast, savage land, you don't back down, don't give up, and don't stop shooting until the last bad man goes to his Maker.
Release date: August 27, 2019
Publisher: Recorded Books
Print pages: 480
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Where There's Fire, There's Smoke
William W. Johnstone
But with the discovery of gold, a great many lives would be forever changed. Livelihoods and relationships were altered; fortunes were made and lost; lives were snuffed out and families split, with the only motive greed.
Thus Fontana was conceived only to die an unnatural death.
Dawn was breaking as the man stepped out of the cabin. He held a steaming cup of coffee in one large, callused hand. He was tall, with wide shoulders and the lean hips of the horseman. His hair was ash-blond, cropped short, and his eyes were a cold brown, rarely giving away any inner thought.
The cabin had been built well, of stone and logs. The floor was wood. The windows held real glass. The cabin had been built to last, with a hand pump in the kitchen to bring up the water. There were curtains on the windows. The table and chairs and benches were hand-made and carved; done with patience and love.
And all about the house, inside and out, were the signs of a woman’s touch.
Flowers and blooming shrubs were in colored profusion. The area around the house was trimmed and swept. Neat.
It was a high-up and lonely place, many miles from the nearest town. Below the cabin lay a valley, five miles wide and as many miles long. The land was filed on and claimed and legal with the government. It belonged to the man and his wife.
They had lived here for three years, hacking a home out of the high, lonesome wilderness. Building a future. In another year they planned on building a family. If all stayed according to plan, that is.
The man and wife had a couple hundred head of cattle, a respectable herd of horses. They worked a large garden, canning much of what they raised for the hard winters that lashed the high country.
The man and woman stayed to themselves, socializing very little. When they did visit, it was not to the home of the kingpin who claimed to run the entire area, Tilden Franklin. Rather it was to the small farmers and ranchers who dotted the country that lay beneath the high lonesome where the man and woman lived.
There was a no-name town that was exclusively owned by Tilden Franklin. The town held a large general store, two saloons, a livery stable, and a gunsmith.
But all that was about to change.
This was a land of towering mountains and lush, green valleys, sparsely populated, and it took a special breed of men and women to endure.
Many could not cope with the harshness, and they either moved on or went back to where they came from.
Those that stayed were the hardy breed.
Like Kirby and Sally.
Kirby was not his real name. He had not been called by his real name for so many years he never thought of it. There were those who could look at him and tell what he had once been; but this was the West, and what a man had once been did not matter. What mattered was what he was now. And all who knew Kirby knew him to be a man you could ride the river with.
He had been a gunfighter. But now he rarely buckled on a short gun. Kirby was not yet thirty years old and could not tell you how many men he had killed. Fifty, seventy-five, a hundred. He didn’t know. And neither did anyone else.
He had been a gunfighter, and yet had never hired out his gun. Had never killed for pleasure. His reputation had come to him as naturally as his snake-like swiftness with a short gun.
He had come West with his father, and they had teamed up with an old Mountain Man named Preacher. And the Mountain Man had taken the boy in tow and begun teaching him the way of the mountains: how to survive, how to be a man, how to live where others would die.
Preacher had been present when the boy killed his first man during an Indian attack. The old Mountain Man had seen to the boy after the boy’s dying father had left his son in his care. Preacher had seen to the boy’s last formative years. And the old Mountain Man had known that he rode with a natural gunslick.1
It was Preacher who gave the boy the name that would become legend throughout the West; the name that would be whispered around ten thousand campfires and spoken of in a thousand saloons; the name that would be spoken with the same awe as that of Bat Masterson, Ben Thompson, the Earp boys, Curly Bill.
Smoke’s first wife had been raped and murdered, their baby son killed. Smoke had killed them all, then ridden into the town owned by the men who had sent the outlaws out and killed those men and wiped the town from the face of Idaho history.2
Smoke Jensen then did two things, one of them voluntarily. He became the most feared man in all the West, and he dropped out of sight. And then, shortly after dropping out of sight, he married Sally.
But his disappearance did nothing to slow the rumors about him; indeed, if anything, the rumors built in flavor and fever.
Smoke had been seen in Northern California. Smoke had gunned down five outlaws in Oregon. Smoke had cleaned up a town in Nevada. Since his disappearance, Smoke, so the rumors went, had done this and that and the other thing.
In reality, Smoke had not fired a gun in anger in three years.
But all that was about to change.
A dark-haired, hazel-eyed, shapely woman stepped out of the cabin to stand by her man’s side. Something was troubling him, and she did not know what. But he would tell her in time.
This man and wife kept no secrets from each other. Their lives were shared in all things. No decisions were made by one without consulting the other.
“More coffee?” she asked.
“No, thank you. Trouble coming,” he said abruptly. “I feel it in my gut.”
A touch of panic washed over her. “Will we have to leave here?”
Smoke tossed the dregs of his coffee to the ground. “When hell freezes over. This is our land, our home. We built it, and we’re staying.”
“How do the others feel?”
“Haven’t talked to them. Think I might do that today. You need anything from town?”
“You want to come along?”
She smiled and shook her head. “I have so much to do around the house. You go.”
“It’ll be noon tomorrow before I can get back,” he reminded her.
“I’ll be all right.”
He was known as Kirby in this part of Colorado, but at home Sally always called him Smoke. “I’ll pack you some food, Smoke.”
He nodded his head. “I’ll saddle up.”
He saddled an appaloosa, a tough mountain horse, sired by his old appaloosa, Seven, who now ran wild and free on the range in the valley Smoke and Sally claimed.
Back in the snug cabin, Smoke pulled a trunk out of a closet and opened the lid. He was conscious of Sally’s eyes on him as he removed his matched .44s and laid them to one side. He removed the rubbed and oiled gun belts and laid them beside the deadly Colts.
“It’s come to that, Smoke?” she asked.
He sighed, squatting before the trunk. He removed several boxes of .44 ammo. “I don’t know.” His words were softly spoken. “But Franklin is throwing a big loop nowadays. And wants it bigger still. I was up on the Cimarron the other day—I didn’t tell you ’cause I didn’t want you to worry. I made sign with some Indians. Sally, it’s gold.”
She closed the trunk lid and sat down, facing her husband. “Here? In this area?”
“Yes. Hook Nose, the buck that spoke English, told me that many whites are coming. Like ants toward honey was his words. If it’s true, Sally, it’s trouble. You know Franklin claims more than a hundred and fifty thousand acres as his own. And he’s always wanted this valley of ours. It’s surprising to me that he hasn’t made a move to take it.”
Money did not impress Sally. She was a young, high-spirited woman with wealth of her own. Old money, from back in New Hampshire. In all probability, she could have bought out Tilden Franklin’s holdings and still had money.
“You knew about the gold all along, didn’t you, Smoke?”
“Yes,” he told her. “But I don’t think it’s a big vein. I found part of the broken vein first year we were here. I don’t want it.”
“We certainly don’t need the money,” she reminded him.
Smoke gave her one of his rare smiles, the smile softening his face and mellowing his eyes, taking years from the young man’s face. “That’s right. I keep forgetting I married me a rich lady.”
Together, they laughed.
Her laughter sobered as he began filling the cartridge loops with .44 rounds.
“Does part of it run through our land, Smoke?”
“I’ll pack you extra food. I think you’re going to be gone longer than you think.”
“I think you’re probably right. Sally? You know you have nothing to fear from the Indians. They knew Preacher and know he helped raise me. It’s the white men you have to be careful of. It would take a very foolish man to bother a woman out here, but it’s happened. Stay close to the house. The horses will warn you if anyone’s coming. Go armed at all times. Hear me?”
He leaned forward and kissed her mouth. “I taught you to shoot, and know you can. Don’t hesitate to do so. The pot is boiling, Sally. We’re going to have gold-hunters coming up against Franklin’s gunhands. When Franklin learns of the gold, he’s going to want it all. Our little no-name town is going to boom. For a time. Trouble is riding our way on a horse out of Hell. You’ve never seen a boom town, Sally. I have. They’re rough and mean and totally violent. They attract the good and the bad. Especially the bad. Gamblers and gunhawks and thieves and whores. We’re all going to be in for a rough time of it for a while.”
“We’ve been through some rough times before, Smoke,” she said quietly.
“Not like this.” He stood up, belted the familiar Colts around his lean waist, and began loading the .44s.
“Matt just died, didn’t he?” she asked.
“Yes. I’m afraid so. When Smoke steps out of the shadows, Sally—and it’s time, for I’m tired of being someone else—bounty hunters and kids with dreams of being the man who killed Smoke Jensen will be coming in with the rest of the trash and troublemakers. Sally, I’ve never been ashamed of what I was. I hunted down and destroyed those who ripped my life to shreds. I did what the law could not or would not do. I did what any real man would have done. I’m a Mountain Man, Sally. Perhaps the last of the breed. But that’s what I am.
“I’m not running anymore, Sally. I want to live in peace. But if I have to fight to attain that peace . . . so be it. And,” he said with a sigh, “I might as well level with you. Peyton told me last month that Franklin has made his boast about running us out of this valley.”
“His wife told me, Smoke.”
The young man with the hard eyes smiled. “I might have known.”
She drew herself up on tiptoes and kissed him. “See you in two or three days, Smoke.”
Smoke made his Spartan camp some five miles outside of Fontana. With Drifter acting as guard, Smoke slept soundly. He had sent Pearlie to his ranch earlier that night, carrying a hand-written note introducing him to Sally. One of the older ranchers in the area, a man who was aligned on neither side, had told Smoke that Pearlie was a good boy who had just fallen in with the wrong crowd, that Pearlie had spoken with him a couple of times about leaving the Circle TF.
Smoke did not worry about Pearlie making any ungentlemanly advances toward Sally, for she would shoot him stone dead if he tried.
Across the yard from the cabin, Smoke and Sally had built a small bunkhouse, thinking of the day when they would need extra hands. Pearlie would sleep there.
Smoke bathed—very quickly—in a small, rushing creek and changed clothes: a gray shirt, dark trousers. He drank the last of his pot of coffee, extinguished the small fire, and saddled Drifter.
He turned Drifter’s head toward Fontana, but angling slightly north of the town, planning on coming in from a different direction.
It would give those people he knew would be watching him something to think about.
About half a mile from Fontana, Smoke came up on a small series of just-begun buildings; tents lay behind the construction site. He sat his horse and looked at Preacher Morrow swinging an axe. The preacher had removed his shirt and was clad only in his short-sleeve undershirt. Smoke’s eyes took in the man’s heavy musculature and the fluid way he handled the axe.
A lot more to him than meets the eyes, Smoke thought. A whole lot more.
Then Smoke’s eyes began to inspect the building site. Not bad, he thought. Jackson’s big store across the road, and the offices of the others in one long building on the opposite side of the road. The cabins would be behind the offices, while Jackson and his wife and brother would live in quarters behind but connected to the store.
Smoke’s eyes caught movement to his left.
“Everything meet with your approval, Mister Jensen?”
Smoke turned Drifter toward the voice. Ed Jackson. “Looks good. The preacher’s a pretty good hand with an axe, wouldn’t you say?”
“Oh . . . him? ’Bout the only thing he’s good at. He’s a sissy.”
Smoke smiled, thinking: Shopkeeper, I hope you never push that preacher too hard, ’cause he’ll damn sure break you like a match stick.
Hunt, Colton, Haywood, and their wives walked out to where Smoke sat Drifter. He greeted the men and took his hat off to the ladies. Bountiful was not with the group and Smoke was grateful for that. The woman was trouble.
Then he wondered where the shopkeeper’s brother was. He wondered if Bountiful and Paul might be . . .
He sighed and put his hat back on, pushing those thoughts from him. He dismounted and ground-reined Drifter.
“Going into town to vote, Mister Jensen?” Hunt asked.
“No point in it. One-sided race from what I hear.”
“Oh, no!” Colton told him. “We have several running for mayor, half a dozen running for sheriff, and two running for city judge.”
“Tilden Franklin’s men will win, believe me.”
“Mister Franklin seems like a very nice person to me,” Ed said, adding, “not that I’ve ever met the gentleman, of course. Just from what I’ve heard about him.”
“Yeah, he’s a real prince of a fellow,” Smoke said, with enough sarcasm in his voice to cover hotcakes thicker than molasses. “Why just a few days ago he was nice enough to send his boys up into the high country to burn out a small rancher-farmer named Wilbur Mason. Shot Wilbur and scattered his wife and kids. He’s made his boast that he’ll either run me out or kill me, and then he’ll have my wife. Yeah, Tilden is a sweet fellow, all right.”
“I don’t believe that!” Ed said, puffing up.
Smoke’s eyes narrowed and his face hardened. Haywood looked at the young man and both saw and felt danger emanating from him. He instinctively put an arm around his wife’s shoulders and drew her to him.
Smoke said, his eyes boring into Ed’s eyes, “Shopkeeper, I’ll let that slide this one time. But let me give you a friendly piece of advice.” He cut his eyes, taking in, one at a time, all the newcomers to the West. “You folks came here from the East. You do things differently back East. I didn’t say better, just different. Out here, you call a man a liar, you’d better be ready to do one of two things: either stand and slug it out with him or go strap on iron.
“Now you all think about that, and you’ll see both the right and wrong in it. I live here. Me and my wife been here for better than three years. We hacked a home out of the wilderness and made it nice. We fought the hard winters, Indians a few times, and we know the folks in this area. You people, on the other hand, just come in here. You don’t know nobody, yet you’re going to call me a liar. See what I mean, Shopkeeper?
“Now the wrong of it is this: there are bullies who take advantage of the code, so to speak. Those types of trash will prod a fellow into a fight, just because they think that to fight is manly, or some such crap as that. Excuse my language, ladies. But the point is, you got to watch your mouth out here. The graveyards are full of people ignorant of the ways of the West.”
Ed Jackson blustered and sweated, but he did not offer to apologize.
He won’t make it, Smoke thought. Someone will either run him out or kill him. And mankind will have lost nothing by his passing.
“Why is Franklin doing these things, Mister Jensen?” Haywood asked.
“Smoke. Call me Smoke. Why? Because he wants to be king. Perhaps he’s a bit mad. I don’t know. I do know he hates farmers and small ranchers. As for me, well, I have the Sugarloaf and he wants it.”
“The Sugarloaf?” Hunt asked.
“My valley. Part of it, that is.”
“Are you suggesting the election is rigged?” Haywood inquired.
“No. I’m just saying that Tilden’s people will win, that’s all.”
“Has Mister Franklin offered to buy any of the farmers’ or ranchers’ holdings?” Hunt asked.
Smoke laughed. “Buy? Lawyer, men like Tilden don’t offer to buy. They just run people out. Did cruel kings offer to buy lands they desired? No, they just took it, by force.”
Preacher Morrow had ceased his work with the axe and had joined the group. His eyes searched for his wife and, not finding her present, glowered at Ed Jackson.
Maybe I was right, Smoke thought.
“Are you a Christian, Mister Jensen?” he asked, finally taking his eyes from the shopkeeper.
Bad blood between those two, Smoke thought. “I been to church a few times over the years. Sally and me was married in a proper church.”
“Have you been baptized, sir?”
“In a little crick back in Missouri, yes, sir, I was.”
“Ah, wonderful! Perhaps you and your wife will attend services just as soon as I get my church completed?”
“I knew a lay preacher back in Missouri preached on a stump, Preacher Morrow. Look around you, sir. You ever in all your life seen a more beautiful cathedral? Look at them mountains yonder. Got snow on ’em year-round. See them flowers scattered around, those blue and purple ones? Those are columbines. Some folks call them Dove Flowers. See the trees? Pine and fir and aspen and spruce and red cedar. What’s wrong with preaching right in the middle of what God created?”
“You’re right, of course, sir. I’m humbled. You’re a strange man, Mister Jensen. And I don’t mean that in any ugly way.”
“I didn’t take it in such a way. I know what you mean. The West is a melting pot of people, Preacher. Right there in that town of Fontana, there’s a man named Louis Longmont. He’s got degrees from places over in Europe, I think. He owns ranches, pieces of railroads, and lots of other businesses. But he follows the boom towns as a gambler. He’s been decorated by kings and queens. But he’s a gambler, and a gunfighter. My wife lives in a cabin up in the mountains. But she’s worth as much money as Tilden Franklin, probably more. She’s got two or three degrees from fancy colleges back East, and she’s traveled in Europe and other places. Yet she married me.
“I know scouts for the Army who used to be college professors. I know cowboys who work for thirty and found who can stand and quote William Shakespeare for hours. And them that listen, most of them, can’t even read or write. I know Negroes who fought for the North and white men who wore the Gray who now work side by side and who would die for each other. Believe it.”
“And you, Smoke?” Hunt asked. “What about you?”
“What about me? I raise cattle and horses and farm. I mind my own business, if people will let me. And I’ll harm no man who isn’t set on hurting me or mine. We need people like you folks out here. We need some stability. Me and Sally are gonna have kids one day, and I’d like for them to grow up around folks like you.” He cut his eyes to Ed Jackson. “Most of you, that is.” The storeowner caught the verbal cut broadside and flushed. “But for a while yet, it’s gonna be rough and rowdy out here.” Smoke pointed. “Ya’ll see that hill yonder? That’s Boot Hill. The graveyard. See that fancy black wagon with them people walking along behind it, going up that hill? That wagon is totin’ a gunhawk name of Tay. He braced me last night in Louis’s place. He was a mite slow.”
“You killed yet another man?” Ed blurted out.
“I’ve killed about a hundred men,” Smoke said. “Not counting Indians. I killed twenty, I think, one day up on the Uncompahgre. That was back in ’74, I think. A year later I put lead into another twenty or so over in Idaho, town name of Bury. Bury don’t exist no more. I burned it down.5
“People, listen to me. Don’t leave this area. We got to have some people like you to put down roots, to stay when the gold plays out. And it will, a lot sooner than most folks realize. And,” Smoke said with a sigh, “we’re gonna need a doctor and nurse and preacher around here . . . the preacher for them that the doc can’t patch up.”
The newcomers were looking at Smoke, a mixture of emotions in their eyes. They all wanted for him to speak again.
“Now I’m heading into town, people,” Smoke said. “And I’m not going in looking for trouble. But I assure you all, it will come to me. If you doubt that, come with me for an hour. Put aside your axes and saws and ride in with me. See for yourself.”
“I’ll go with you,” Preacher Morrow said. “Just let me bathe in the creek first.”
All the men agreed to go.
Should be interesting, Smoke thought. For he planned to take Preacher Morrow into Louis’s place. Not that Smoke thought the man would see anything he hadn’t already seen . . . several times before, in his past.
Ralph Morrow was the first one back to where Smoke stood beside Drifter. “Where is your wife, Preacher?”
The man cut his eyes at Smoke. Smoke could see the faded scars above the man’s eyes.
A boxer, Smoke thought. He’s fought many times in the ring.
“Walking along the creek over there,” he said, pointing. “I suppose she’s safe. From hostiles,” he added, a touch of bitterness in his voice.
“I’d think so. This close to town. Preacher? Anytime you want to talk, I’m available.”
The man looked away, stubbornness setting his chin.
Smoke said no more. The others soon joined them and they made their way into Fontana. The newspaper man carried a note pad and had a breastpocket full of pencils. Smoke stabled Drifter with Billy and smiled at the boy. Billy was dressed in new britches and a new shirt, boots on his feet. “Give him some corn, Billy.”
“Yes, sir. I heard that was some show last night over to Longmont’s place.”
Smoke nodded. “He was a tad slow.”
Billy grinned and led Drifter into his stall, the big outlaw stallion allowing the boy to lead him docilely.
“What a magnificent animal,” Colton remarked, looking at Drifter.
“Killed the last man who owned him,” Smoke said.
The doctor muttered something under his breath that Smoke could not quite make out. But he had a pretty good idea what it was. He grinned.
The town was jammed with people, bursting at its newly sewn seams. American flags were hung and draped all over the place. Notices that Tilden Franklin was going to speak were stuck up, it seemed, almost everywhere one looked.
“Your fine man is going to make a speech, Jackson,” Smoke said to the shopkeeper, keeping his face bland. “You sure won’t want to miss that.”
“I shall make every attempt to attend that event,” Ed announced, a bit stiffly.
Several of the miners who had been in Louis’s place when Tay was shot walked past Smoke, greeting him with a smile. Smoke acknowledged the greetings.
“You seem to have made yourself well known in a short time, Smoke,” Hunt said.
“I imagine them that spoke was some that made money betting on the outcome of the shooting,” Smoke informed the lawyer.
“Not much else to do out here, Lawyer. Besides, you should see the crowds that gather for a hanging. Folks will come from fifty miles out for that. Bring picnic lunches and make a real pleasurable day out of it.”
The lawyer refused to respond to that. He simply shook his head and looked away.
The town was growing by the hour. Where once no more than fifty people lived, there now roamed some five thousand. Tents of all sizes and descriptions were going up every few minutes.
Smoke looked at Ed Jackson. “I’m not trying to pry into your business, Shopkeeper, so don’t take it that way. But do you have any spare money for workmen?”
“I might. Why do you ask?”
“You could get your store up and running in a few days if you were to hire some people to help you. A lot of those men out there would do it for a grubstake.”
“A grubstake. You give them equipment and food, and they’ll help you put up your building and offer you a percentage of what they take out of the ground. I’d think about it—all of you.”
“I thought you didn’t care for me, Mister Jensen,” the shopkeeper said.
“I don’t, very much. But maybe it’s just because we got off on the wrong foot. I’m willing to start over.”
Ed did not reply. He pursed his perch-mouthed lips in silence. “I thank you for your suggestion,” he said, a moment later. “I shall . . . give you a discount on your first purchases in my store for it.”
“Why, thank you very much,” Smoke replied, a smile on his lips. “That’s right generous of you, Ed.”
“Yes,” Ed said smugly. “It is, isn’t it?”
The other men turned their heads to hide their smiles.
“How do I go about doing that?” Ed questioned.
“Just ask somebody,” Smoke told him. “Find a man who is afoot rather than riding. Find one carrying everything on his back or pushing a cart. You’ll probably get some refusals, but eventually you’ll find your people.”
Ed, Colton, Hunt, and Haywood walked off into the pushing, shoving hubbub of humanity, leaving Smoke and Preacher Morrow standing alone.
“You have no spare money, Preacher?” Smoke asked.
Ralph’s smile was genuine. “Find me one who does have spare money. But that isn’t it. I want to build as much of my church as possible myself. It’s . . . a personal thing.”
“I understand. I’m a pretty good hand with an axe myself. I’ll give you a hand later on.”
Ralph looked at the gunfighter. “I do not understand you, Mister Jensen.”
Before Smoke could reply, the hard sounds of drumming hooves filled the air. “Tilden Franklin,” Smoke said. “The king has arrived.”
“Pearlie!” Sally called. “Come take a break and have some coffee. And I made doughnuts.”
“Bearsign!” the young puncher shouted. “Yes, ma’am. I’m on my way.”
Sally smiled at that. She had learned that cowboys would ride a hundred miles for home-cooked doughnuts . . . something they called bearsign. It had taken Sally a time to learn why they were called bearsign. When she finally learned the why of it, she thought it positively disgusting.
“You mean! . . .” she had puffed to Smoke. “These people are equating my doughnuts to . . . that’s disgusting!”
“Bear tracks, Sally,” Smoke had told her. “Not what you’re thinking.”
She had refused to believe him.
And Smoke never would fully explain.
More fun letting her make up her own mind.
“My husband must have thought a lot of you, Pearlie,” she said, watching the puncher eat, a doughnut in each hand. “He’s not normally a trusting person.”
“He’s a fine man, Miss Sally,” Pearlie said around a mouthful of bearsign. “And got more cold nerve than any man I ever seen.”
“Can we win this fight, Pearlie?”
The cowboy pushed his battered hat back on his head. He took a slug of coffee and said, “You want a straight-out honest answer, ma’am?”
“That’s the only way, Pearlie.”
Pearlie hesitated. “It’ll be tough. Right off, I’d say the odds are slim to none. But there’s always a chance. All depends on how many of them nester friends of yourn will stand and fight when it gets down to the hard rock.”
“A few of them will.”
“Yes’um. That’s what I mean.” He stuffed his mouth full of more bearsign.
“Matlock will, and so will Wilbur. I’m pretty sure Colby will stand firm. I don’t know about the others.”
“You see, ma’am, the problem is this: them folks you just named ain’t gunhands. Mister Tilden can mount up to two hundred riders. The sheriff is gonna be on his side, and all them gun-slingin’ deputies he’ll name. Your husband is pure hell with a gun—pardon my language—but one man just can’t do ’er all.”
Sally smiled at that. She alone, of all those involved, knew what her husband was capable of doing. But, she thought with a silent sigh, Pearlie was probably right . . . it would be unreasonable to expect one man to do it all.
Even such a man as Smoke.
“What does Mister Franklin want, Pearlie . . . and why?”
“I ain’t sure of the why of it all, ma’am. As for me, I’d be satisfied with a little bitty part of what he has. He’s got so much holdin’s I’d bet he really don’t know all that he has. What does he want?” The cowboy paused, thinking. “He wants everything, ma’am. Everything he sees. I’ve overheard some of his older punchers talk about what they done to get them things for Tilden Franklin.
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