Northwest Colorado Territory, August 1870
he snowcapped crag known as Zenobia Peak towered above the two men on the small, grassy plain at its base. At some point in the past, a slab of rock in the shape of a crude rectangle had tumbled down into the field from those rugged slopes above. The rock was small enough that one man could move itâif he was a very strong man.
The rock sat up on its end, the passage of time having sunk its base slightly into the earth. That, along with the sheer weight of it, discouraged anyone from tampering with itâwhich was good because the stone marked a place special to the two men who stood beside it.
A simple legend was chiseled into the rock.
BORN 1815 DIED 1869
The few words couldn't sum up the man's life. It took memories to do that.
Smoke Jensen stood at the grave of his father, his hat in his hands, and remembered.
The images that went through his mind seemed to have a red haze over them.
His father and his older brother Luke going off to war. The evil in human form riding up to the hardscrabble Jensen farm in the Missouri Ozarks. His sister being raped, his mother brutally gunned down. And the vengeance he had ultimately taken on the animals responsible for those atrocities, Billy Bartell and Angus Shardeen.
Red was the color of that vengeance. Red for blood . . .
The memories cascaded faster and faster through his thoughts, out of all order. They were each part of what had made him the man he was.
Hearing about the death of his brother in the great conflict that had split the nation. His father's return after the war, to find nothing left to hold him and his sonâthe only remaining Jensensâon the farm. His sister Janey leaving. No telling where she was or if she was even still alive. And the day Emmett Jensen and his son, whose given name was Kirby, set off for the frontier, bound for the unknown.
Battles with the Indians, meeting the old mountain man called Preacher who gave him his current name. “Smoke'll suit you just fine. So Smoke it'll be.” His father's killing. The long and so far fruitless search for the men responsible.
Smoke scrubbed a boot in the dirt.
And the reputation building around him as one of the fastest guns the West had ever seen . . .
Years of memoriesâlong, bloody yearsâhad come back to him in a matter of heartbeats.
He drew a deep breath and looked down at the rock-turned-tombstone, glad that time and the elements had not erased the words he had chiseled there. Preacher stood some distance away, having told Smoke that he needed some private time with his pa.
It was hard to know if Emmett could really hear him, but Smoke spoke to his father anyway, telling him what he had done, how he had settled part of the score for the wrongs done to the Jensen family.
And that he wasn't done yet. Not by a long shot.
He stood there in silence for another moment, then he put his hat on and turned toward Preacher.
“He was real proud of you, boy,” the old mountain man said. “I know that for a fact. Same as I am.”
The lump in Smoke's throat wouldn't let him reply.
“Where are you goin' now?” Preacher asked as they walked back to their horses.
“I'm heading back to Denver to turn in my badge. I don't reckon I'll be needing it anymore.”
Preacher scratched his beard-stubbled jaw. “Oh, I wouldn't be so quick to do that, Smoke. A tin star can come in mighty handy from time to time.” He paused, then added, “Most 'specially iffen you're still wantin' to go after them fellers what kilt your pa.”
Denver, Colorado Territory
The low-lying building was made of white limestone. A United States flag flew from the flagpole out front, flapping gently in the breeze. Chiseled above the doorway were the words
United States Federal Office Building
Smoke Jensen, taller than most men, with shoulders someone once described as “wide as an axe handle” walked inside. On his shirt, he wore the star of a deputy United States marshal.
“Hello, Deputy Jensen,” Annie Wilson greeted him as he hung his hat on the hat rack just inside the door. Middle-aged but still quite attractive, she flashed him a welcoming smile.
“Hello, Miss Wilson. Is the marshal in?”
Uriah B. Holloway was the chief U.S. marshal for the Colorado District. A while back, he had appointed Smoke as a deputy U.S. marshal for the purposes of locating Angus Shardeen, who had once ridden with John Brown and had personally taken part in the Pottawatomie Massacre in which several pro-Southern sympathizers were murdered.
After John Brown's death, Shardeen had started his own group and made his presence known by burning homes and killing innocents in Southwest Missouri. Shardeen had killed Smoke's mother, then stood by and watched as his men had used Smoke's sister Janey.
Smoke would have gone after Shardeen anyway, but the appointment, though temporary and without pay, had made his vendetta legal.
“He's in his office, Deputy. If you wait just a moment, I'll let him know you're here.”
Smoke walked over to look through the window as Annie went into the office to announce him. He saw a couple boys sitting on the ground with their legs spread, playing mumblety-peg with a pocket knife.
“Ha! You lose, you lose! You have to root the peg out with your teeth!” one of the boys said triumphantly.
Smoke smiled as he recalled playing that game with his brother, back before the war. They'd played a different variation of the game. The object had been to see who could throw the knife into the ground and stick it the closest to their own foot. When Luke left for the war he was still carrying a scar on his right foot from where he had thrown the knife too close.
That was a much more innocent time. In fact, as Smoke thought back on it, it was the only innocent time he had ever known in his entire life.
“Deputy Jensen?” Annie said, coming out of Holloway's office. “The marshal will see you now.”
“Thank you, Miss Wilson.”
Holloway was standing behind his desk when Smoke stepped into his office. “Hello, Smoke,” he greeted as he extended his hand.
Smoke took it and shook.
“How's that old horse thief, Preacher?”
“Preacher's doing well,” Smoke said, speaking of the man who had become not only his mentor but also the closest thing he had to a father since his own pa had been killed.
He took the badge from his shirt and placed it on the desk in front of Marshal Holloway.
“What's that for?” Holloway asked with a puzzled frown.
“I want to thank you, Marshal, for putting your trust in me and making me your temporary deputy. That helped me take care of my business.”
“It wasn't just your business, Smoke. If it had been, I would have never let you put on that star in the first place. There were federal warrants out for Shardeen and his men.” Holloway pointed to the star. “There's too much prestige attached to wearing that badge, and too many men have died defending its honor, to give it out to just anyone. I would have never let you wear it if I hadn't thought you deserved it.”
“I appreciate the trust, Marshal.”
“Do you appreciate it enough to wear that star permanently? With proper compensation, I hasten to add.”
“Are you offering me a full-time job, Marshal?” Smoke asked.
“Yes. You do need a job, don't you? I mean, you don't plan to eat off Preacher's table forever, do you?”
Smoke laughed, admitting, “I am getting a little tired of game and wild vegetables.” He reached for the star, picked it up, and held it for a long moment, examining it.
He looked up at the man across from him. “Marshal, you do know that I'm after Richards, Potter, and Stratton, don't you?”
“Those are the men who killed your brother?”
“Yes, sir. And as far as I've been able to determine, they aren't wanted anywhere.”
“You suspect that they killed your father, too, don't you?”
“I more than suspect. I know they did.”
Marshal Holloway held up his finger. “Listen to me carefully, Smoke. You
they killed your father, don't you?”
Smoke wasn't sure where the marshal was going with that statement, but he picked up on the inference. “Yes, sir, I suspect they did.”
“Then as a deputy U.S. marshal, you can always hold them on suspicion of murder.”
“You do know, don't you, Marshal, that they aren't going to let me do that?”
Marshal Holloway smiled. “You mean they might resist arrest?”
“Yeah, they might.” Smoke smiled, too. “They might even resort to gunplay in resisting.”
“Well, as a deputy U.S. marshal, you would be fully and legally authorized to counter force with force.”
“All right, Marshal.” Smoke pinned the star back onto his shirt. “You've just hired yourself a new deputy.”
Holloway shook his hand. “And now you'll be drawing forty dollars a month and expenses.”
“Sounds good to me.”
“But I'll be expecting you to do more than just look for those three men. Are you ready to start earning your pay?”
That surprised Smoke. “You have a job for me already?”
“Yeah,” Holloway said. “I want you to go to Red Cliff over in Summit County. Go see Sheriff Emerson Donovan. He's a friend of mine . . . who was once my deputy, by the way. An outbreak of cattle rustling is so severe it's causing some of the ranchers to go out of business.”
“Cattle rustling? Wouldn't that be a state crime?”
Holloway smiled. “It would be, if we were a state. But Colorado is still a territory, therefore any crime that's committed here is a federal crime.” He handed Smoke a piece of paper. “Here is an arrest warrant signed by a federal judge. You can put whatever name or names on it that you need.”
“What if the names are Stratton, Potter, and Richards?”
“Who knows? Someday, those may be just the names you put on there.”