Smoke Jensen came fully awake, his heart hammering as he sat up straight in the bed, his hand automatically reaching for the Colt .44 that was never very far from his grasp.
Sally opened her eyes, blinked twice, and asked in a sleepy voice, “What is it, darling?”
Smoke shook his head, forgetting for the moment she couldn't see him in the darkness. “I don't know,” he answered, the hairs on the back of his neck stirring at some as yet unexplained noise or movement.
He turned his head toward the window, where a light breeze was billowing the curtains, bringing into the room the sweet scent of mountain laurel and pine needles along with a hint of ozone that foretold of fall showers on the way.
Sally glanced at the glint of moonlight on the barrel of Smoke's gun and sat up herself, reaching for the Colt Navy. 36-caliber pistol on the table next to her side of the bed.
“Something wrong, dear?” she asked.
Smoke slipped out of bed and pulled on his buckskin trousers, which he'd flung over the back of a chair the night before. “I'll let you know in a minute, sweetheart. Go back to sleep.”
“Not on your life, Smoke. I've learned never to ignore your instincts.” She threw the covers back and grabbed a robe from the foot of the bed. “If something woke you up, then I'm going to go with you to find out what it is.”
She could see his teeth gleaming in the semidarkness as he grinned at her. “Well, there's no need for both of us to lose sleep. Why don't you check it out and I'll go back to bed?”
She put her hands on his shoulders, turned him around, and pushed him toward the door. “I'll be right behind you.”
“So that's the way it is, huh?” he whispered over his shoulder. “I take all the risks and you stay safe behind me.”
“That's why God gave you such big shoulders, dear, so I could hide behind them,” she answered with a chuckle.
Smoke snorted. “That'll be the day.”
They walked through the darkness of the cabin and stepped to the back door. Smoke eased it open, eared back the hammer on his Colt, and stepped outside. Sally followed him out the door and stepped to his side, her Colt Navy held in front of her.
The night was typical for early fall in the high lonesome of the Rocky Mountains where they had their ranch, Sugarloaf. The sky was crystal clear with millions of stars shining down like diamonds on a field of black velvet. The moon, though not full, shone with brilliance through the thin air, illuminating the area around the cabin with a ghostly yellow light. Lightning danced in dark, roiling clouds over distant mountaintops and the faint sounds of thunder could be heard.
Smoke's eyes stopped their movement and he pointed to the hitching post off to the side. “There's a horse,” he said.
Sally followed his gesture and could see a solitary horse standing next to the hitching post, its head down as it calmly munched on nearby grass. Its reins were hanging loose, as if it'd wandered to the post by itself.
“It's wearing a saddle so there must be a rider somewhere close by,” Sally whispered back.
Smoke reached inside the cabin and grabbed his Greener ten-gauge short-barreled express gun off a rack next to the door. He stuck his Colt in his waistband and held the Greener in both hands as he stepped off the porch and approached the riderless horse.
“Be careful, Smoke, there may be more than one of them out there,” Sally called softly, her eyes flicking back and forth as she tried to cover his back. Since Smoke had once been a notorious gunfighter, she knew there was always the possibility of men tracking him down, looking to get revenge for some perceived wrong Smoke had done them.
“There's something familiar about this horse,” Smoke said, a puzzled expression on his face as he turned back to look at Sally. “I've seen that blaze on his forehead before.”
Sally took a closer look at the horse and realized she knew who its owner was. “Wait a minute, Smoke,” she said, putting her hand on the barrel of the shotgun and pushing it toward the ground. “I think that's Monte Carson's horse.”
Smoke walked over to the horse and examined the saddle. “You're right, Sally. It is Monte's mount.”
Monte Carson was the sheriff at Big Rock, Colorado, the closest town to the Jensen ranch, and a dear friend of Smoke and Sally.
When Sally got to Smoke's side, she noticed the look on his face. “What's wrong, Smoke? You look like you've seen a ghost.”
He pointed at the side of the saddle. The leather was covered with a large stain, looking almost black in the moonlight, that ran down the sides of the saddle onto the fender skirts of the stirrups. Smoke put his finger on the stain and held it under his nose. The coppery scent brought back unpleasant memories of times he'd been shot. “It's blood. Something bad's happened to Monte.”
He eased the hammers down on the shotgun and laid the barrel on his shoulder as he looked around, searching for his friend in the semidarkness. “I guess I'd better get some of the hands up and we'll do a search. If this blood's his, he's injured pretty bad. It won't do to leave him out here too long.”
Sally pulled her robe close around her against the chill of the mountain air. “I'll get some water on the stove to boil and have my medical kit handy.”
Smoke nodded his approval. “Put some coffee on too, please. We're gonna need it if we spend too much time out here in the cold.”
Sally walked back toward their cabin and Smoke proceeded to the bunkhouse across the wide yard. He opened the door and moved to the wood stove in the corner, which was still warm from the evening before. He lit a lantern on a shelf and picked up a coffeepot and banged it on the stove a couple of times.
His foreman, Pearlie, sat up in his bed, yawning and rubbing sleepy eyes, a puzzled expression on his wrinkled, sunburned face. “Pearlie, get everybody up!” Smoke said. “Sheriff Monte Carson's horse showed up here covered with blood. I think Monte may be out there in the night bleeding to death. We need to find him.”
Pearlie scrambled out of bed, clapping his hands and shouting, “Off yore butts an' on yore feet! We got work to do and we got to do it fast!”
The cowboys, most of whom knew Monte and liked him, didn't argue. They swung out of their beds and began to pull their clothes on.
“Sally'll have coffee ready over at the cabin. Report there when you're finished dressing,” Smoke said as he left the bunkhouse.
By the time Pearlie had the hands gathered outside the cabin, Sally had biscuits and sausage patties cooked along with a large pot of fresh coffee.
Pearlie, a renowned chowhound, made sure he was at the front of the line for food. “Havin' some of your fresh-cooked biscuits and sausage almost makes gettin' up at this ungodly hour worth it, Miss Sally,” he said, as he grabbed a handful of the sausage and biscuit sandwiches.
Cal Woods, Pearlie's best friend and unofficial son to Smoke and Sally, spoke up from behind the foreman. “Hey, go easy there, Pearlie. Anybody'd think you ain't eaten for days the way you grabbin' those sinkers.”
Pearlie puffed out his chest. “The man who has to do most of the work gets the most food, Cal, my boy. That's the way it's always been and that's the way it always will be.”
“Huh,” Cal snorted through his nose. “The only time you move faster'n molasses in January is when you're rushing toward a mess tent.”
Pearlie shook his head. “Boys! You just don't understand the difficulty being in charge of a bunch of lazy galoots like you causes a man. Why, I get plumb wore out just thinkin' on ways to get you to earn your salary.”
He paused to stuff another sandwich into his mouth as Smoke stepped up on the porch to address the group of men.
“Boys, we need to get moving. Monte is out there, so let's go find him.” He glanced at Pearlie. “Pearlie, you organize the men to cover all the territory between here and the gate to the road to Big Rock. If we don't find him there, we'll move on down toward the town.”
“Yes, sir, Smoke,” Pearlie said, and he turned and began giving orders to the men on where to search.
Sally put a hand on Smoke's arm. “Perhaps we ought to send someone to Big Rock to fetch Doc Spalding.”
Smoke nodded. “Cal, hold on a minute. I want you to saddle up and ride as fast as you can to Big Rock and get Doc out here. And tell him to bring what he needs for a bullet wound.”
Cal nodded once and sprinted toward the barn to get his mount.
* * *
It took the men less than thirty minutes to find the wounded Monte Carson and carry him to Smoke's cabin.
“Put him on the bed,” Sally said.
She tore open his shirt and looked at his wounds. She glanced up at Smoke. “Looks like he's been hit twice, once just below the left shoulder and once in the chest.”
“Is it in his lung?” Smoke asked.
She shook her head. “I don't think so. He doesn't have any bloody froth on his lips and he seems to be breathing all right.”
As Sally took cloths and dipped them in hot water and began to wash his wounds, Smoke bent over the bed, his lips close to Monte's ear.
“Monte, can you hear me?”
Monte's eyes flickered and opened, his lips curling in a half smile. “Of course I can hear you, Smoke. I've been shot, but I ain't deaf.”
Smoke grinned. It was a good sign his friend could still joke in spite of having two bullets in him. “Who did this to you, pal, and why?”
Monte's eyes moved to look at Sally, then back to Smoke. “Big Jim Slaughter and his men.”
“I thought Slaughter was up around Wyoming, near the hole-in-the-wall area.”
Monte nodded, then groaned with the pain the movement caused. “He was. He decided to pay me a visit and talk over some old times.”
Smoke pursed his lips. He hadn't been aware that Monte used to ride with Slaughter, who was one of the most vicious and bloodthirsty killers still roaming the countryside. Before he could ask any more questions, the door opened and Doc Cotton Spalding walked in, followed by Cal.
Sally stepped back from Monte's side and she and the doc began to discuss his wounds and what to do next.
Smoke grabbed Cal by the arm and led him out to the kitchen. “Let's let the doc do his work in peace, Cal.”
Smoke went out on the porch and told the men waiting there he thought Monte was going to be all right and they could go back to bed if they wanted.
Pearlie laid his hand on the butt of his Colt pistol. “Who did this to him, Smoke? Me and the boys'd like to have a talk with them galoots.”
Smoke held up his hands. “There'll be plenty of time for that later, Pearlie. Soon as we find out what's going on, we'll do whatever is necessary to help Monte.”
Pearlie scratched his chin, a glint in his eye. “Any of Miss Sally's sausage and biscuits left?”
Smoke laughed, “Cal, go in and get that platter and hand 'em out before Pearlie faints from hunger.”
“Man ain't allowed hisself to get hungry in ten year at least,” Cal muttered as he went back inside the cabin.