By William W. Johnstone with J.A. Johnstone
Pinnacle, November 2017
Like most families, the Jensens gather together to celebrate the holidays. This year, since half the clan is scattered across the American West, they've decided to split the difference and meet up in Tucson. Matt and Luke will be there, for sure, and maybe Ace and Chance, too. That leaves Sally, Preacher, and Smoke Jensen, who've reserved three seats on a westbound stage to make sure they don't miss out on the festivities. What could possibly go wrong?
Mother Nature is the first to strike, dusting up the trail with a sandstorm as blinding and deadly as any northern blizzard. Then comes an Apache ambush, forcing the passengers and drivers to seek shelter in a cave. Even if Smoke and Preacher manage to shoot their way out of this, they have another big surprise waiting--a ruthless gang of outlaws after the cargo of cash on the stage, happy to slaughter anyone who tries to stop them. If the Jensens hope to save Christmas this year, they'll need to save their own lives first . . .
The seventh Johnstone book set at Christmas and the first one I’ve read. Great to see the author bringing together some of the Johnstone’s greatest characters but as expected the trail to their Christmas rendezvous doesn’t run smoothly.
Most of the story concentrates on the dangers facing Smoke, Sally and Preacher as they journey together first by train and then stagecoach, and it’s whilst travelling on the latter that most of this tale revolves. The stage is also filled with a number of interesting characters too and the author often switches between them as well as those attempting to stop one of them reaching Tucson.
With outlaws, Apaches, and Mother Nature out to destroy the stagecoach and its passengers the book offers plenty of action and there is an impressive body count. Once the travellers are pinned down in a cave the tension mounts as you’ll be wondering just how they can possibly escape.
One thing I particularly enjoyed was the names of some of the characters, Ballard and Tuttle for instance which many long-time readers of westerns will recognize as past authors of the genre. A nod to those old time pulps which is strengthened by the comments in the last part of the story about newspaper reporters and writing for those pulps.
If you’re looking for a fast read that is packed with gunplay then this is certainly worth adding to your ‘want to read’ list.