From William J. Johnstone, bestselling author of the acclaimed Mountain Man series, comes a sprawling Western saga that brings together for the first time the three generations of legendary frontiersmen, the Jensens, in a bloody battle for freedom, justice, and the fate of a nation…
THE FAMILY JENSEN: PREACHER, SMOKE, AND MATT
Trapped in a remote cabin, surrounded by ruthless gunmen, Matt Jensen and his adoptive father Smoke Jensen join forces with their old friend, Preacher, in the greatest fight of their lives. A ruthless cattle baron has waged an all-out war against the peaceful native tribesmen who have become Preacher's friends. In a bloodthirsty bid for land, power, and wealth, the baron's drafted an army of professional killers to destroy the homesteaders-among them the Jensens are the only men brave enough to stand in his way.
Now, Matt, Smoke and Preacher face their ultimate and most deadly challenge-and share their hopes, fears, secrets, and dreams-in what could be their final, most desperate hour. No matter what happens, they are the family Jensen. Surrender is not an option.
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May 04, 2010
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Excerpt from The Family Jensen by William W. Johnstone
The temperature in the small, stone-and-log cabin climbed steadily during the afternoon. The single room was about twelve feet by twelve feet. There were no windows, and the door was closed and barred. The only light and the only air came in through gaps between the logs where the mud chinking had fallen out . . . And
through the loopholes that had been carved in those logs so men who had to fort up in the cabin could fire rifles at their enemies.
Shots blasted occasionally from outside, but the bullets stood little if any chance of penetrating the thick walls. Lead smacked harmlessly into stone or logs.
The three defenders fired even less often. They stood at the loopholes, two at the front wall and one at the back, sweat trickling down their faces, and waited patiently for a target to present itself. When they had a good shot, they took it quickly, without hesitation.
The oldest of the trio, manning a loophole in the rear wall, squeezed the trigger of a heavy-caliber Sharps rifle. The weapon's boom was deafening in the cabin's close confines. The acrid smell of burned powder already hung in the air, and that latest shot added to the sharp tang.
"Got that son of a buck," the old man said with satisfaction. "That'll learn him to stick his ear out where I can see it."
"You blew his ear off, Preacher?" one of the younger men asked.
The old-timer turned his head and spat on the hard-packed dirt floor as he lowered his Sharps and started reloading the single-shot rifle. "Damn right I did." He paused and then added slyly, "O' course, since his brain was right on t'other side of his ear, I reckon that ball went on through and messed it up a mite, too."
That brought grim chuckles from the other two men, but the respite lasted only a moment before one of them warned, "Hombre coming up on your side, Matt."
A wicked crack came from Matt's rifle, and he said, "Not anymore. Obliged for the heads-up, Smoke."
Smoke Jensen grinned and gibed, "Somebody's got to watch out for you, youngster."
Preacher snorted. "You're a fine one to be callin' anybody youngster. You ain't much more'n a kid yourself, Smoke. Why, it don't seem like it's been more'n a year or two since I first come on you and your pa, down on the Santa Fe Trail."
"That was nigh on to fifteen years ago, Preacher," Smoke said.
The old man snorted again. "When you get as old as I am, the years flow by like water in a high mountain crick." He grinned, revealing teeth that were still strong despite his age.
"The years are as sweet as that water, too, and I still drink deep of 'em."
"I believe that," muttered Matt Jensen, who was the youngest of the three men.
They had been holed up in the cabin since a little before noon. It was around two in the afternoon, and the sweltering cabin would just get hotter as the day went on. With the coming of night, the temperature would cool off fairly quickly at that elevation. Smoke, Matt, and Preacher weren't looking forward to the darkness. It also meant the small army of gunmen that wanted them dead could get close enough to toss some torches onto the roof. When that happened, they could either stay inside and die from the smoke and fire . . .
Or they could go out that door with guns in their hands, fighting to the end, dealing out blazing death to their enemies. Not a single one of the three had to ponder the question. They knew what they were going to do . . .
Unless they could figure out some way to turn the tables on the gunslinging bastards who had forced them to take shelter there.
Preacher ran his fingers through his tangled white beard. He was dressed head to foot in buckskins and had a broad brimmed leather hat thumbed back on thinning white hair. An eagle feather was stuck in the hatband. He had a Colt .44 holstered on his right hip and a sheathed Bowie knife on his left. This was his eighty-first summer, but somewhere along the way, he had become as timeless and ancient as the mountains, weathered slowly but hardly weakened. He could ride all day, he could whip men half his age, and he could drink just about anybody under the table. He'd been naught but a boy when he went west, and he had been there, by and large, ever since, for more than six decades.
He was a mountain man, one of the last of that hardy breed.
He was also something of a surrogate father to Smoke Jensen, having taken the boy under his wing when Smoke's own father Emmett had been killed. Smoke hadn't been known by that name then; he'd been given the name Kirby Jensen when he was born. Preacher was the one who had dubbed him Smoke that long-ago day when Kirby, Emmett, and Preacher had been ambushed by a Kiowa war party. Maybe it was because of the powder smoke that filled the air when Kirby Jensen received his baptism of fire, or maybe it was because his ash-blond hair was almost the color of smoke, but whatever the reason, the handle stuck, and from that day forward he'd been Smoke Jensen.
He wasn't a boy any longer, but rather a man in the prime of life, just over six feet tall with shoulders as broad as an ax handle. Down in Colorado, he had a damn fine ranch called the Sugarloaf and an even finer wife named Sally. He had a reputation, too, as a man who was fast on the draw, maybe the fastest on the entire frontier. Smoke had no desire to live the life of a gunfighter, though. He drew the walnut-butted .44 on his hip only when he had to . . . but as many men had learned, to their short-lived but final regret, he didn't cotton to being pushed around.
Just as Preacher had helped Smoke out when he was orphaned, so Smoke had taken in Matt Cavanaugh, who had lost his family at an even younger age. That was back in the days before Smoke had settled down, when he was still searching for gold in Colorado. He had found it, and since Matt helped him work the claim, Smoke felt that Matt deserved an equal share in it. He had also taught Matt everything that Preacher had taught him about how to survive on the frontier, and more importantly, how to live his life as a decent, honorable man.
When the time came for Matt to strike out on his own, as a tribute to the man who had become like an older brother to him he had taken Smoke's last name, and ever since he'd been known as Matt Jensen. It was a name that was becoming more widely known, as Matt was drawn to danger and adventure like a moth to flame. He wasn't reckless, but he didn't back down when challenged.
So the three men who waited in the stifling cabin in the Big Horn Mountains shared not a drop of common blood . . . and yet they were family. Bonds stronger than blood held them together, bonds forged by love, respect, and shared danger.
Most of the time, each of them went their own way, especially Preacher and Matt, both of whom tended to be fiddle-footed, but distance didn't mean anything to such men. When one needed help, the others would come a-runnin'.
At that moment it looked like the three of them might well die together.
Preacher squinted over the barrel of his Sharps through the loophole and said, "Those hombres must not have the sense God gave a badger! Here they come again!"
Whoever had built the cabin back in the old days had known what he was doing. The area around it was cleared of trees and brush for a good fifty yards. No one could sneak up on the place unseen. Some thick stumps remained, where trees had been chopped down, and as some of the hired gunmen charged out of the trees, they threw themselves behind those stumps and opened fire, aiming at the loopholes they had spotted from the powder smoke that gushed through them from time to time.
"Son of a gun!" Matt exclaimed as slugs chewed splinters from the log wall all around the loophole he was using. He was forced to draw back momentarily. So were Smoke and Preacher.
"More coming out of the trees!" Smoke called. He saw men dart out from cover, race past their companions who were firing from behind the stumps, and then dive behind other stumps. "They're leapfrogging at us, blast it!"
It was true. As soon as the second wave of attackers had gone to ground, they opened up on the cabin, allowing the first ones to advance past them.
That wasn't the only trickery going on. "Circling to your left, Matt!" Smoke said. Matt twisted in that direction, thrust the barrel of his Winchester through an opening, and began firing as fast as he could work the rifle's lever.
Smoke bit back a curse as he spotted some of the gunmen running to his right, trying a flanking move in that direction. He wished one of his friends, Sheriff Monte Carson or the gambler and gunhawk Louis Longmont, was there to cover the fourth side, although he wouldn't have wished them into such a predicament as the one in which he, Matt, and Preacher found themselves.
There was only one thing to do. He leaned his Winchester against the wall, threw aside the bar that kept the door closed, drew one of the long-barreled .44s he carried in his holsters, and yanked the door open. Palming out the other Colt he leaped outside, landing on his belly.
Both six-guns began to roar. Firing in two directions at once was a tricky, almost impossible thing to do, but in the hands of Smoke Jensen, guns could do almost anything. He could make them sing and dance if he wanted to, folks said. His guns sang a melody of death.
His left-hand gun slammed bullets into the bodies of the men charging at the cabin head-on. The right-hand Colt bucked and roared as it tracked the gunnies who were trying to circle in that direction.Men cried out and stumbled or spun off their feet as Smoke's lead ripped through them.
From the corner of his eye, Matt had seen Smoke's daring play, and he jumped into the doorway, using his rifle to mow down the men going to the left. At the back of the room, Preacher threw down his empty Sharps and snatched up another Winchester. With deadly accurate fire he held off the men attacking from that direction.
For thirty seconds, it sounded like a small war as the thunderous gunfire echoed back from the peaks surrounding the beautiful little valley where the cabin was located.
Then the hammers of Smoke's guns clicked on empty chambers. With Matt covering him, he scrambled to his hands and knees and dived back through the doorway. Matt hurried after him, slamming the door closed and dropping the bar in its brackets again.
"You give them ol' boys what for?" Preacher drawled.
"I reckon we did, Preacher," Smoke said as he sat with his back against the wall and reloaded his Colts. "The last I saw, they were skedaddling back to the trees."
"The ones who could still move, that is," Matt added.
The other two knew what he meant. They had turned back the attack and done considerable damage to the enemy force.
As silence fell again, they heard the pathetic moans of wounded men. Not one of the defenders wasted any sympathy on those varmints. The gunnies had known what they were getting into.
"It was a mite of a hornet's nest in here," Preacher said.
"Plenty o' slugs flyin' around." He touched a gnarled finger to his cheek, and the tip came away bloody. "Felt like one of 'em kissed me, and sure enough it did."
That little bullet burn on Preacher's cheek was the only injury they had suffered. They had been very lucky so far, and they knew it. Luck would only last so long. They knew that, too.
"Bannerman must be paying those boys pretty well," Matt commented. "That many gun-wolves don't come cheap." Smoke said, "If there's one thing Reece Bannerman has, it's money, and plenty of it."
"Then why's the dang fool want more?" Preacher asked.
"Why's it so all-fired important that he steal this valley from Crazy Bear's people?"
Smoke had finished reloading his guns. He picked up his rifle again and took his place at the loophole. As he peered out at the silent trees where the gunmen were hidden, he said, "I guess some men never get enough, no matter how much they have."
"Well, I ain't gonna let it happen," Preacher declared.
"We're gonna get outta this fix somehow and show Bannerman he can't get away with it. I owe Crazy Bear a whole heap o' thanks for what he done for me. That's why I come a-runnin' when I heard he was in trouble."
"Crazy Bear's a good man," Smoke agreed. "I was glad to help out when I got your letter, Preacher."
"And it's a good thing I was visiting Smoke at Sugarloaf at the time," Matt added, "because I want to be in on this, too."
"You just want to see Crazy Bear's daughter again," Smoke said with a smile.
"I won't deny that," Matt said.
Preacher snorted. "You young fellas may be fond o'Crazy Bear, but I owe the ol' rapscallion my life. I ever tell you that story, Smoke?"
"I don't think so," Smoke said, although as a matter of fact, Preacher had told him the story before. It was a pretty good yarn, and they needed something to pass the time while they waited for Bannerman's hired guns to attack again.
So as the three men stood and watched, and the heat grew worse in the cabin, Preacher drawled, "It was about thirty years ago, I reckon. I was on my way through this same valley. Weren't no ranches nor towns hereabouts in those days. 'Twas still mighty wild country, and it might cost a man his hide if 'n he didn't keep his eyes open . . ."