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Sliding languidly, in big, oily swirls, over a few submerged sandbars, the red- brown surface of the Colorado River glided past the low, native stone buildings on the isolated knoll. The complex rested well above the sandy, ochre flood plain, beyond the maximum high water mark. According to the Army engineers who designed the structure, it made the ideal location for a prison.
For that was the purpose of this high-walled, forbidding construction. Yuma Territorial Prison; it housed the hardest of hard cases, the most unrepentant road agents, bank robbers, and highwaymen, the wife and baby killers who had escaped from other institutions to kill again and never show a flicker of remorse. At the quarry, guards' shrill whistles announced the noon hour and the men working on the rock pile lowered their hammers and drills. They shambled wearily through the shimmering mid-day desert heat to find what solace they could in the shadows of an overhanging wall of the strip quarry. Among them, three men stood out from the rest.
Victor Spectre could never be mistaken for a drifter or a highwayman. A graduate of Yale, he had the look about him of a businessman, albeit one who kept himself in excellent condition. Trim, with hard muscles, in his mid-forties, he had only the beginnings of a pot belly. The latter had developed quite a lot during his seven years in various prisons. He used to be the brains behind, and leader of, a large outlaw gang that operated in Missouri, Kansas, and Colorado.
He had lived the good life, in luxurious splendor, in a fancy St. Louis hotel, and directed the actions of his vast gang from there. That is, until his greed and the viciousness of his underlings attracted the wrong sort of attention. That's when he met up with trouble. And it was spelled Smoke Jensen. They had a series of violent encounters.
Since that time, Spectre's thick shock of black hair had a white streak to the left of his part, caused by a bullet fired by Smoke Jensen. The slug had knocked him unconscious and saved his life. His eighteen-year-old son, Trenton, had not fared so well. Originally sentenced to hang, Victor Spectre's money and influence got his death warrant commuted to life in prison. With icy green eyes and thick, bristly brows which met in the middle of his forehead when angered, he quickly became the head cock on the yard at any institution in which he had been incarcerated. It also earned him frequent transfers when enemies and rivals among the prison population turned up mysteriously dead. No different from previous occasions, Victor Spectre had assumed leadership over his two companions.
Ralph Tinsdale was a contemporary of Victor Spectre. He had a thick build, going somewhat to pot with advancing years and a starchy prison diet. He used to be a big land speculator, who obtained prime ranches and city properties by the simple expedient of having the owners killed and dealing with the widows. He had been in the process of acquiring from a silver-haired dowager a choice square block in the heart of the business district of Denver when he discovered that the late Harrison Tate had been a close personal friend of one Smoke Jensen.
Quite quickly, Smoke Jensen wrote finis to the evil machinations of Ralph Tinsdale. In their final confrontation, Smoke had left Tinsdale for dead, at the bottom of a deep ravine, with two bullet holes in the belly. Tinsdale had survived with large scars and a permanent limp. Smoke found that out when called to testify at the trial. When the guilty verdict came in and the judge sentenced him to life in prison, Tinsdale cursed Smoke hotly in language unbecoming the stylish clothing the swindler wore. His time in prison had failed to mellow him. Tinsdale had grown slack behind bars, so that his once lustrous hair had turned a mousy brown, poorly cared for, and his once natty pencil-line mustache had been replaced by a scraggly wisp of its former self. Only his hatred of Smoke Jensen gave him a semblance of youthful vigor. Enough, though, that he was accepted as second in command of the unholy trio.
Olin Buckner had nearly ten years on his associates. His auburn hair, which had faded to mostly gray, was worn slicked back tightly on a long skull. He had a porcine appearance, enhanced by a jowly face, with a pug nose and small, deep-set black eyes. An over-large mouth and big ears added to the illusion. He had already developed a middle-aged spread. Once, though, he had been trim and almost compulsively active. He had owned an entire town in south-central Montana. Most of it he had acquired by unlawful means, and he ruled with an iron fist — until he tried to drive out the daughter of a mysteriously and recently deceased friend of Smoke Jensen.
Smoke went after Buckner with a particular vengeance. Olin Buckner replied by hiring an army of gunfighters, putting a bounty on the head of Smoke Jensen, and sitting back to enjoy the results. Buckner might have been a fine, skillful fisherman, but he had never hooked a shark before. When Smoke Jensen got through with him, he had lain in a hospital bed for five months before he could stand upright, and another three before he could be brought to trial. Like the others, his residual wealth and influence bought him a commutation of sentence. The hangman was cheated and Buckner went to the worst prisons in the west. He ended up in Yuma and soon found a common bond between himself and the other two.
Now, this trio of the lowest form of human debris stood quietly in line to take a bowl and tin cup in turn, and shuffle past the trustees who dispensed the mid- day meal. Each inmate received a large dipper of a thin soup, purported to be chicken, but lacking even the sight of a speck of meat, and half a round loaf of sourdough bread. Then they retreated to the blessing of shade. As always, the topic of conversation among Spectre, Tinsdale, and Buckner centered on Smoke Jensen.
"I hate that bastard," Olin Buckner spat. "I've not been able to enjoy a day or night without pain since Jensen shot me. I want him dead — no, crippled and suffering would be better."
"You both know I have ample cause to despise Smoke Jensen," Ralph Tinsdale spoke in precise tones, as his stomach cramped and growled in protest to the food. "I was a man of consequence and ample means before Jensen thrust himself into my affairs. Since then, I have not been able to eat a meal without terrible agony. And prison has further destroyed me."
Victor Spectre gave a snort of amusement through his nose. "And you have destroyed a few of them, from what I hear."
Tinsdale sniffed disdainfully. "I was not afforded the respect I deserved."
"Well, whatever," Spectre muffled through a mouthful of bread. "I have no reason to love Smoke Jensen, as you well know. He maimed me and murdered my son, took everything from me. The only thing is —"
"Quiet down there," a guard snarled. "No talkin' among the prisoners. You three know the rules."
After the guard turned away, Victor Spectre repeated himself. "The only thing is, there is not a thing we can do about it from inside here. Smoke Jensen is free as a bird to go and do anything he wants, with no harm to him."
"I'd give a hell of a lot to see it otherwise," Buckner growled. He spooned the thin soup into his mouth.
Ralph Tinsdale studied Victor Spectre while he munched on the chewy sourdough bread. "Are you proposing we find a way to get out of here?"
"I think that would go a long way toward accomplishing our mutual goal, to bring an end to the career and life of Smoke Jensen."
"It won't be easy," Tinsdale offered.
"No," Victor Spectre agreed. "And, as I said, we can't do it from here. We will have to find a way to escape."
Suddenly the guard rounded on them, his Winchester no longer on his shoulder, but held competently at high-port in a menacing manner. "No talking among prisoners! I warned you three jailhouse lawyers once. This is the second time. There won't be a third. You'll be taken direct to the Sun Box."
Silenced by that most effective threat, the three master criminals froze in silence. They knew all too much about the ingenious variation on solitary confinement employed at Yuma Territorial Prison. Four coffin-like boxes of sheet iron and rock had been constructed in the center of the Yard. They were so small a man could not lie down, could not even sit properly with the door closed and locked. The only openings were tiny, barred holes in the upper part of each door. Each of the recent arrivals at the institution had heard the screams, wails, and blubbering of men driven mad in the heat of a Sun Box. Finally, the warden turned away to snarl at other offending prisoners.
Buckner, by far the most devious of the trio, leaned forward and whispered, "Find some way this afternoon to be sent to the infirmary. We can talk freely there."
Spring had awakened new buds on the aspen trees of the High Lonesome, which had unfolded into tender, pale green leaves. The meadows and pastures of the Sugarloaf had turned emerald. Warm, soft breezes called longingly to those with sufficiently sensitive natures. One of those was a tall, broad-shouldered man with faint streaks of gray in his hair. He breathed deeply and savored the winey fragrance of renewed life. Then he set his coffee cup on the plank flooring of the porch and came to his feet.
"I think it's time to go fishing," he told the lovely woman beside him. "I'll take Bobby along and get in three or four days on Silver Creek, and over Honey Spring way."
His wife looked up with a frown of protest on her forehead. "That boy has yet to finish his studies, Smoke."
Smoke Jensen smiled a wide, white smile in a sun-mahoganied face. "Sally, there's a universe of learning out there in this magical country. He can learn biology, botany, even weather studies."
Sally Jensen broke her stern visage with a giggle. "Also a lot about rainbow and brown trout, I'll wager."
Smoke took her outstretched hands and raised her from the wooden rocking chair. He remained amazed that she had never lost her youthful figure. The years and five children should have done some damage, yet he could detect none at all. "And right you would be, my dear. The last day we'll catch a mess and bring them home to you. Have some fresh biscuits waitin'. And a pie. We have to have a nice pie."
"I've a Mason jar of cherries left, and a couple of blackberries. Which would you prefer?" Sally asked sweetly.
Smoke patted her on one shoulder. "Whatever you pick will be all right with me. Now, I'll go get Bobby and we'll round up our gear."
Bobby Harris had been living with the Jensens since he became an orphan at the age of ten. His stepfather had been beating the boy's pony and Bobby had been tearfully pleading with the drunken brute when Smoke rode up to the small homestead outside of Thatcher, Colorado. Smoke Jensen could not abide any man who would harm an animal and watched in growing anger. When the abused critter stumbled to its knees, the lad became hysterical. Smoke stepped in when the stepfather decided to turn the length of lumber on Bobby.
After a thorough beating, administered by the hard fists of Smoke Jensen, the drunken sot had gone for Smoke with a pitchfork. Bobby's shouted warning saved Smoke's life and cost that of the stepfather. Smoke was on the way to give assistance to old and true friends in Mexico at the time and at last decided on sending Bobby and his pony north to the Sugarloaf. A year later they made it official by adopting the orphaned boy. He was bright and energetic, although at times a bit forgetful of the limitations of a small boy. He was doing such now, risking any future progeny on the saddle of an unbroken mustang, when Smoke came upon him at the big corral.
Sugarloaf riders had located the wild horses a month earlier, still snowbound in a box canyon. They patiently constructed a barricade across the mouth of the chasm and waited. When the snow melted and the animals calmed somewhat, flankers along the herd's edges brought them in to provide a new bloodline to the prize horses raised by Smoke and Sally on the Sugarloaf.
Grunting and squalling, the wild bang-tail crow hopped and sunfished under the small, tightly gripping legs of Bobby Harris. Smoke rode in close and held his peace, gloved hands folded on the saddlehorn of his big 'Palouse stallion, Thunder. Two more jumps and a tornado spin later, Bobby tasted corral bottom. The spunky lad came to his boots after only a lung-jarring grunt, dusted off his jeans and chaps, and spat grit from his mouth. "Damn," he followed it with. Then he saw Smoke Jensen. "Oh, sorry Smoke. I — ah —" He grinned sheepishly.
"What's a damn or two between two friendly men?" Smoke asked lightly. Bobby literally glowed. He wore his hero worship of Smoke Jensen for everyone to see. "I thought you might be in a mood for something a little less strenuous."
"Like what?" Bobby limped to the fence and squirmed through the two lower poles.
Smoke teased him shamelessly. "My nose and my mountain man instincts tell me it's time to go hog out a few rainbows. Think you'd like that?"
Bobby dusted his hands together, then adjusted the angle of his pint-sized Montana peak Stetson. "Would I? You bet, I would. Where would we go? How long?"
Smoke raised his chin and spoke as though just thinking of it. "I thought we'd angle up Silver Spring a ways, then head over toward Honey Spring. Be gone three, four days."
Bobby's eyes went wide. "That's stupendous, Smoke, I'll git ready right away."
"Stupendous?" Where the hell do they get these words? Smoke wondered silently.
Grinning from ear to ear, Bobby Harris turned in the saddle. "This is really great, Smoke." He breathed deeply, filling young lungs. "It smells so good up here. I can tell pine an' blue spruce, grass a-growin' like crazy. There's water up ahead, I can smell it, too. We never had nothin' to smell around Thatcher, excect dust."
"Whoa! Get a rein on that enthusiasm. And remember the grammar Sally has been drilling into your head."
Bobby made a face. "Along with Miss Grimes at Punkin' Head School," he lamented. "Study, study, study. That's all we do."
Smoke pulled a wry expression. "Then how'd you manage to come home with that big bag of marbles at snow closin' last winter?"
Eyes fixed on the skirt of Thunder's saddle, Bobby slid out his lower lip in a pout and dug at his pug nose with a knuckle. "We only got to play during our nooning, Smoke, honest."
"Then you must be the best marble player in all of Big Rock."
"I'm ... good, right enough. Sammy an' me played some when I boarded at his folks' house."
Here, in a land of big and early snows, school was held on a reversed schedule, from the fifteenth of April until the fifteenth of October. Tutoring made up for the other three months of class work. Sally Jensen, who had taught school at one time, held group lessons for Bobby, the children of ranch hands, and neighboring youngsters. It vexed her students mightily, Smoke knew, yet they showed up and behaved extraordinarily well. A broken leg had prevented Bobby from starting in Big Rock this April and, now out of his cast, cabin fever had set in.
What else would account for the boy undertaking the hazards of breaking mustangs? Smoke asked himself. Well, in a week, two at most, he would be headed for Big Rock and the little red schoolhouse at the end of Main Street. It had been arranged for him to live with his best friend, Sammy, and the Weisers expected him no later than that. For all Bobby's protestations, Smoke noted, he and Sammy had managed to get enough time away from the classroom the last summer to acquire a decent browning of their hides. A faint yellow-brown tinge of high altitude tan still colored Bobby's cheeks and forearms. Given this summer, he would be free forever of the unhealthy pallor which had accompanied the boy to the Sugarloaf. The high altitude sun soon cured normal skin like leather, with about the same color.
"We gonna build a lean-to or sleep out under the stars?" Bobby asked.
Smoke smiled back. "We can do whatever you want."
An animated face answered Smoke. "Then can you tell me some stories about you and Preacher? About back when you were my age?"
Smoke leaned over and lightly tapped Bobby on one shoulder point. "I didn't know Preacher when I was your age. I was fourteen, I think, when I wound up lost out here and on my own."
"So? Go on."
"Tonight, over fish and biscuits."
"That's a promise, Smoke?"
Excerpted from "Spirit Of The Mountain Man"
Copyright © 2006 Kensington Publishing Corp..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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