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Independence was also where the Santa Fe Trail began, but the wagons that followed that path weren't loaded down with immigrants. Instead, they were packed with trade goods bound for the markets of Santa Fe, in Mexican territory. A few settlers made that trip, too, but the Mexican government discouraged immigration in favor of commerce. When the wagons made their return journey to the States, they would be filled with Mexican gold and silver.
Like most people who went to Independence, the man called Preacher didn't intend to stay long. But as he stared down the barrel of a pistol, he wondered if he was going to be staying in Independence from now on, probably in an unmarked grave. "Take it easy there, hoss," he drawled in his gravelly voice. "I ain't lookin' for trouble."
"I ain't either," replied the man pointing the gun at him. "I'm lookin' for money, and I'll take what you got."
Preacher couldn't help but chuckle. "Well, you are smack-dab out of luck, friend, because I don't have a single coin in my pocket."
It was true. Earlier that evening, Preacher had spent the last of his money on supplies for him and his two companions, Lorenzo and Casey. He'd cached the goods in the stable where they had their horses, and he was on his way to the tavern where he knew he would find them.
Lorenzo had a small stake, and he planned to try running it into a bigger one if he could find a suitable poker game. Preacher had decided to cut through the alley to reach the tavern, and it was looking like a questionable decision. A man had stepped out of the shadows and accosted him at gunpoint, and Preacher's keen ears had picked up a scuff of boot leather on hard-packed ground behind him, as well. There were two of the scoundrels.
But Preacher wasn't exactly alone. Standing tensely beside him was the big, shaggy, wolflike cur known only as Dog.
"No money?" the would-be robber in front of Preacher said. "You're a liar! You got to have some money!"
Until then, Preacher might have been willing to turn out his pockets to prove he was penniless, since he'd been in an unusually peaceable mood. He didn't cotton to being called a liar and his back stiffened in anger.
"You'd best put away that pistol and step aside, mister," he said harshly. "Else I won't be responsible for what happens."
The man laughed. "Are you crazy? There are two of us and only one of you. If you don't have any money, gimme your guns and anything else you got that's worth anything."
"Seems to me like the odds are against you," Preacher said.
"You talkin' about that mutt? You think he's the equal of one of us?"
"Hell, no," Preacher said. "I think he's worth a dozen no-account scum like you. Probably more."
The robber grated a curse.
Preacher didn't wait any longer. He had already cut those damn fools a sight more slack than they deserved. He said sharply, "Dog!"
The big cur moved with blinding speed, a gray phantom in the shadows of the alley. He whirled and launched himself at the man behind Preacher, crashing into him just as the man pulled the trigger on his pistol. Dog's weight and strength drove the man backward off his feet, so the shot went well over Preacher's head.
At the same time, Preacher went into action with the same sort of deadly speed. He lashed out with the flintlock rifle in his hands. The long barrel cracked across the wrist of the would-be robber's gun hand, breaking it and knocking the pistol aside as it roared. The two shots came so close together they sounded like one, and the twin muzzle flashes lit up the alley for a split-second, revealing the ugly, unshaven face twisted in pain.
The next instant, Preacher drove the rifle butt into the man's throat. The robber staggered backward, choking and gasping as he tried unsuccessfully to drag a breath through his ruined airways. Preacher could have stopped right there and let him die a slow, suffocating, agonizing death.
Instead, the mountain man's hand went to the sheath on his belt and drew the long, heavy-bladed hunting knife he carried. The knife flashed forward, burying more than a foot of cold steel in the robber's belly. Preacher ripped it back and forth, opening a hideous wound through which the man's steaming entrails spilled as he collapsed on the dirty floor of the alley. His last breath rattled in his throat as Preacher pulled the knife free and stepped back.
The snarling and screaming that had filled the alley behind him were coming to an end. The screams faded away in a gurgling sigh of death, and the big cur fell silent as Preacher said, "Dog."
Preacher bent and wiped his knife clean of blood on the clothes of the man he had killed. As he slid the weapon back in its sheath, he reflected that he wouldn't lose any sleep over either of those deaths. Men such as those who lurked in alleys and robbed folks had almost certainly slashed any number of innocent throats. Preacher knew that was what they'd had in mind for him.
That mistake had cost them their lives.
"Come on, Dog," he said softly. "Let's get out of here. They probably got a constable in this town, and we ain't got time to deal with that foolishness."
Both of them faded into the night with a skill born of long practice. Stealth had saved their lives on many occasions.
A short time later, having taken a longer way around, Preacher entered the tavern where he had told Lorenzo and Casey he would meet them. The smoky lantern light filling the room revealed a tall, lean man in fringed buckskins, a broad-brimmed felt hat, and high-topped boot moccasins. Preacher's face was too craggy to be called handsome, but it possessed a great deal of raw power. A dark mustache drooped over his wide mouth. He was in his mid-thirties, old enough for the rumpled thatch of dark hair under his hat to have a number of gray strands threaded through it. His skin bore the permanent tan of a life lived out in the elements.
He nestled his rifle in his arms, and two flintlock pistols were tucked behind his belt in addition to the knife he carried. A powder horn and a shot pouch were draped over his shoulders, their rawhide thongs crossing on his chest and back. In a frontier full of dangerous men, Preacher was one of the most dangerous, and he looked it.
But the keen eyes under his bushy brows were also filled with intelligence and humor. He had seen and done a great deal since coming west as a young man, and it had taught him to appreciate every minute of his adventurous life.
He looked around the room, spotted Lorenzo at one of the tables playing cards and Casey standing at the bar. A number of hostile stares were being directed at them, and that told Preacher several things.
For one, the other card players didn't like losing. They especially didn't like losing to a black man, even one who had been freed from his former status as a slave.
The angry looks cast Casey's way came from the trollops who worked in the tavern. Even with the scar on her left cheek from a knife wound, Casey was the prettiest woman in there. The fact that several men clustered around her at the bar proved that. The serving wenches didn't like having the competition.
Casey's whoring days were over, though. She shared Preacher's blankets sometimes, but it was out of friendship and good, healthy, animal lust. No money would ever change hands.
The three of them, Preacher, Lorenzo, and Casey, had been traveling together for a couple of weeks, taking their time moseying west after leaving St. Louis. A mission of vengeance had taken Preacher from his beloved Rocky Mountains to the big city, and in the course of that mission, Lorenzo and Casey had become allies of his, as well as friends. When he left and headed west again, they had come with him.
Instead of traveling up the Missouri River to the northern Rockies, Preacher had decided to meander in a more southerly direction for a change, into Nuevo Mexico. He hadn't been that way for several years. From there, he and his two companions could work their way north along the rugged mountain ranges. That way, Lorenzo and Casey could see a lot of different country. Since neither of them had ever been west of St. Louis, they were going to be impressed by how vast the American frontier really was.
The plan was to leave in the morning and ride west along the Santa Fe Trail, but before they could do that, they had to make it through the night. Between thieves in dark alleys, sore losers in a poker game, and jealous whores, Preacher wasn't sure they were going to make it.
Lorenzo laid down his cards at the end of a hand. A grin wrinkled his wizened face as he reached out to rake in the money in the center of the table, adding it to the pile of winnings in front of him. "Luck is with me tonight, gentlemen," he said.
"Somethin's with you, but I ain't sure it's luck," one of the men at the table said with a scowl.
"Fortune favors the bold, or so they say. I always done had a streak of boldness in me. That's why they call it gamblin'."
The hand of the man with the scowl slapped down on the table. "Don't you lecture me, you little coon. Your master wouldn't like it if he knew you were out sassin' white men."
"Ain't got no master," Lorenzo said. "I'm a free man. Fella I used to work for didn't hold with havin' slaves."
"One of those damned do-gooders, eh?"
Lorenzo laughed. "No, sir. If you'd knowed him, you wouldn't ever say that. He never done good in any way, shape, or form."
That was the truth, thought Preacher. Lorenzo's former employer was the man he had gone to St. Louis to kill.
"I still say you're too damn lucky," the poker player went on.
"You wouldn't be hintin' that I'm a cheater, would you?"
"You said it, not me," the man snapped. "But I'm damn sure something fishy is goin' on here."
Preacher saw the old-timer's face grow taut with anger and stepped over to the table. "You about ready to go, Lorenzo?"
Glaring across at the man who had all but accused him of cheating, Lorenzo said, "I reckon so. It ain't feelin' too hospitable in here no more."
He reached for his winnings. The man on the other side of the table suddenly whipped out a knife and plunged the tip of the blade into the wood with a solid thunk! The knife pinned some of the bills to the table.
"You just hold on a minute there, darky," he said. "You and your partner ain't gonna waltz off with my money like that."
Preacher put his hand on the butt of one of his pistols. "No, you might want to hold on, mister," he warned. "I know Lorenzo, and he ain't a cheater."
The words were barely out of Preacher's mouth when from behind him came Casey's alarmed voice. "Preacher, watch out!" she cried, as the metallic cocking of a gun's hammer sounded.
Preacher glanced over his shoulder and saw a man pointing an old blunderbuss pistol at him. At the same time, Lorenzo grabbed the edge of the table and shoved upward. Despite his age, he was still nimble and strong. The table went up and over with a crash, scattering cards and money across the puncheon floor.
Twisting and whirling, Preacher exploded into action. He drew both pistols and lashed out with the one in his left hand, smashing the barrel against the skull of the man who had accused Lorenzo of cheating.
The blunderbuss pistol went off with a dull boom. It fired a heavy ball, but at low velocity. Preacher ducked aside to avoid it and fired the pistol in his right hand. The ball from it smashed the shoulder of the man who had just shot at him.
Lorenzo was on the floor, scrambling to gather up as much of the money as he could. Preacher told him, "Come on!" and headed for the door, ready to shoot and slug his way out of there if he had to.
And it looked like he might have to. Several men, probably friends of the pair that had started the trouble, were moving to block his path.
Casey was in trouble, too. A couple of the serving girls attacked her, slapping at her and trying to pull her hair. Suddenly, a stranger moved in, grabbing one of the trollops and flinging her aside. The man shoved the other serving girl away, took hold of Casey's hand, and pulled her away from the bar.
"Come with me!" he told her. "I'll get you out of here!"
Six men barred Preacher from the door. He could have waded into them, but there was a simpler way. He let out a piercing whistle, and the door banged open as Dog threw himself against it from outside. The big cur hit the men from behind like a cyclone, scattering them like ninepins.
Preacher stuck his empty pistol behind his belt and reached down to take hold of Lorenzo's arm. He hauled the old-timer to his feet and hustled him toward the entrance.
"I wasn't cheatin', Preacher, I swear it!" Lorenzo declared. "That fella, he just couldn't play cards worth a fig!"
"I know," Preacher said. "But let's get outta here first, then we can talk about it."
Dog whirled this way and that, snapping and snarling, keeping a path open to the door. One man scooped up a fallen chair and raised it to strike at the dog, but before the blow could fall, the barrel of
Preacher's pistol thudded against the back of his head. The man dropped the chair and folded up. Preacher shouldered another man aside and shoved Lorenzo ahead of him. The old man went through the door right behind Casey and the man who had rescued her at the bar. Preacher turned and backed through the door, holding the loaded pistol in front of him in menacing fashion. When he was clear of the threshold, he called, "Dog!"
The big cur bounded out of the tavern, leaving several shaken and bleeding men behind him. He loped easily alongside Preacher as the mountain man followed the other three.
Preacher had expected their last night in Independence to be a peaceful one. The attempted robbery in the alley and the brawl in the tavern had ruined those plans.
The trouble might not be over yet. As men spilled out of the tavern, a torch flared to life.
"There they go!" a man shouted. "After 'em!"
"We'll tar and feather the bastards!" another man bellowed.
No, thought Preacher as he hurried through the night with an angry mob on his heels, their last night in Independence wasn't going to be a peaceful one at all.
Preacher had gotten only a brief look at the man in the tavern. He was young, with dark hair worn long over his ears and the back of his neck, and was dressed in store-bought duds, but not fancy ones. Preacher had never seen him before.
He seemed to be on their side, although Preacher couldn't discount the possibility the young man was leading them into a trap. But it didn't feel likely.
Besides, with a bunch of howling, angry varmints behind them, what did they have to lose?
"Lead the way, mister!" Preacher told the stranger. "We're right behind you!"
They ran through the streets, around corners, down alleys. More torches had sprung to life behind them, casting long, misshapen shadows that seemed to pursue Preacher and his friends with a life of their own.
Preacher spotted lights ahead of them, and a moment later they came up to a wagon encampment on the western edge of the settlement. Twenty massive freight wagons were ranged in a circle, with the herd of oxen that would pull them penned in the center. A cooking fire burned in a pit outside the wagons. Half a dozen men stood talking near the fire, while others who had already turned in for the night were dark, formless shapes in bedrolls underneath the wagons.
One of the men by the fire heard them coming and stepped forward to meet them. "Roland, what's the meaning of this?" he demanded roughly. "Who are these people?"
"Friends, Pa," the young man replied. "We have to help them."
A curse came from the older man. "What in blazes have you gotten yourself into, boy?"
Excerpted from THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN PREACHER'S ASSAULT by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2011 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of PINNACLE BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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