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Preacher smashed a knobby-knuckled fist into the face of one of the men attacking him and wondered why the hell he ever came to St. Louis in the first place. He could have sold his furs at one of the trading posts in the mountains and not even made the long journey back down the Missouri River.
But then he would miss out on all this entertainment and excitement, he thought wryly as he ducked under a wildly looping punch and hooked a hard left into his opponent's belly. The man's breath, laden with rum fumes, gusted in Preacher's face.
Something smashed into the small of his back, driving him forward with a grunt of pain, and he couldn't avoid the next punch aimed at his face. The fist landed on his right cheekbone and rocked his head to the side.
"Grab him!" a man yelled in the darkness. "Put him on the ground!"
Preacher knew he faced eight or ten men, maybe a few more. It was so dark it was hard to tell.
Overwhelming odds, no matter how anyone looked at it, even for a veteran frontiersman like him who had been in countless bare knuckles brawls. If the attackers ever got him on the ground, they could stomp the life out of him.
The ruckus had gotten serious in a hurry.
Preacher yanked his big hunting knife from its stiff leather sheath and slashed from left to right in front of him. To a certain extent, he struck out blindly. The shadows were so thick beside the riverfront tavern where he'd been drinking earlier in the evening that he couldn't see the men who had jumped him as he left. They were shapeless lumps in the darkness.
One of them howled in pain as the razor-keen blade of Preacher's knife sliced through his flesh. Preacher pivoted, still slashing back and forth, and opened a small area around him.
He didn't know why the men had attacked him, but robbery seemed the most likely motive. Gangs of thieves sometimes had spies who kept an eye on the fur company offices, so they would know when a trapper had sold a load of beaver pelts and as a result had money in his pocket.
Preacher had sold a good season's worth of plews earlier that day. He planned to spend a few days in St. Louis, then outfit himself and head back to the mountains.
He never went on a binge when he came to town, like some fellas did. A few drinks, some cards, maybe a visit to one of the fancy houses if he was in the mood ... that was the extent of the carousing Preacher did.
After walking around some, he had gone into Kilroy's tavern, where he had downed a few beers on previous visits to St. Louis. He'd never had any trouble in the place.
But when he left to go back to the stable where he'd left Horse and Dog and turn in for the night in the hayloft, several men had grabbed him and forced him into the alley. Before he could break free, he was surrounded.
He was far from helpless, though, as the man who had tasted his cold steel had found out. He must have been the leader. In a voice taut with pain, he ordered, "Get that jasper!"
The other men hesitated, realizing their quarry was armed. None of them wanted to be the next to feel the bite of Preacher's blade.
Then one of the men leaped forward and yelled as he swung a club. Preacher tried to get out of the way, but it cracked across his wrist and sent the knife flying from his fingers. His hand went numb.
With his left hand, he pulled one of the flintlock pistols he carried from behind the rawhide belt tied around his waist. He hadn't wanted it to turn into a gun battle, but they weren't giving him any choice.
As the men closed in around him again, he drew back the pistol's hammer, hoping the metallic sound would make them think twice and leave him alone.
That proved to be a forlorn hope, as the man with the club swung it again. The cudgel crashed against Preacher's ribs and staggered him. The man pulled the club back for another blow.
Preacher shot him.
Flame geysered from the pistol's muzzle as the powder charge exploded. At close range, both balls from the double-shotted load slammed into the attacker's chest and blew him backward.
Preacher lunged forward. Sometimes taking the fight to the enemy was the best thing a man could do.
He swung the empty pistol, crashing it against a dimly seen head, and felt bone give under the blow. He'd put a third man out of the fight.
Unfortunately, there were still plenty more, and they piled on, hammering at Preacher with hard fists and booted feet. He tried to stay upright, but the pounding was too much. One foot slipped on the damp cobblestones, and he felt himself falling.
A mountain landed on top of him. That was the way it felt, anyway. Then it lifted up and crashed down on him again. Black waves of pain, shot through with red streaks, rolled through Preacher's brain.
"Teach him a lesson," the leader grated.
Preacher caught a glimpse as the man leaned in, clutching a bloody left arm. He had a craggy, big-nosed face. A black patch covered his left eye.
Then the others closed in around him again, kicking and pounding.
Preacher fought as long as he could, until those waves of pain washed him away.
* * *
Preacher had long since learned that sometimes pain was good. Hurting proved that a man was still alive. Dead men didn't hurt. If they did, there was just no blasted justice in this world ... or the next.
As he became aware of his surroundings again, he lay there motionless for a long time, allowing consciousness to seep back into him. When he felt like he could risk it, he opened his eyes and lifted his head.
That was a mistake. Pain detonated inside his skull. He groaned and let his head drop. The back of it banged against a cobblestone and set off more explosions in his brain.
All right, he thought. Just wait a spell longer.
He waited, and then lifted his head without the whole world spinning crazily around him and trying to throw him off. He was able to roll onto his side, get an elbow underneath him, and gradually push himself up into a sitting position.
The rugged, outdoor life he had lived for almost three decades since leaving his family's farm as a youngster and running off to the mountains had given him a constitution of iron. As he sat there in the alley, he felt strength flowing back into him.
His head throbbed. He lifted a hand to explore it, finding several bloody lumps but no significant damage. He drew in a deep breath and blew it out, checking for the stab of pain that would tell him he had cracked or broken ribs. His sides ached, but that was all. No fractures as far as he could tell.
Preacher was surprised. After cutting one of his attackers, shooting another, and stoving in a third man's skull, he had figured they would kill him. It wouldn't have taken that many men too long to stomp him to death.
Instead, they had allowed him to live. They must have fled because of that shot he had fired. Even though the authorities in St. Louis tended to ignore a lot of violence that occurred along the riverfront, the gunshot could have drawn the attention of a constable.
Whatever the reason, he was alive ... just not well, mind you. He ached badly all over and figured his rangy, muscular body would be covered with bruises by morning. But he was still drawing breath and there was plenty to be said for that.
He climbed wearily to his feet and checked his poke.
Empty, just as he'd expected. Whatever had caused the robbers to flee, they had tarried long enough to steal all the money he had gotten for his pelts.
Preacher muttered a curse. Normally he would have split up that money and carried it in different places on his person.
But it wouldn't have made any difference, he realized. The thieves would have searched him from head to foot, and found the coins wherever he tried to hide them.
He asked himself what he was going to do. He still had Horse and Dog, the big stallion and the wolflike cur who were his long-time trail companions, along with his pack horse, his saddle, his possibles bag, his traps, and his long-barreled flintlock rifle, all of which were back at the stable.
But he didn't have money for supplies, including powder and shot, and without that he couldn't venture back up the river into the mountains.
The thought of having to spend months in St. Louis while he worked for wages and saved up enough for a stake made a horrified shiver go through him. A couple years earlier, he had spent a considerable amount of time in the town while he settled a score with an old enemy, and he couldn't bear to do that again.
He would just have to figure out something else.
For the moment, Kilroy would probably give him a beer on the cuff, especially if Preacher pointed out that he had been attacked and robbed right outside the man's place. People in these parts knew Preacher. If he spread the story, it could be bad for Kilroy's business.
Preacher's broad-brimmed, brown felt hat had gotten knocked off during the struggle. He felt around in the alley until he found it. He brushed it off and put it on his head, grimacing as the hat's pressure against some of the bloody lumps made them throb again. He would just have to get used to it, Preacher told himself, because a man didn't go around without a hat.
His steps were steady as he walked back to the street. Nothing seemed unusual as he looked in one direction and then the other. Obviously, the attack on him hadn't attracted any attention, after all.
St. Louis prided itself on being an outpost of civilization, but robbery and murder, along with plenty of other, lesser vices, were common. If that was civilization, Preacher had mused more than once, folks could have it and welcome to it.
He'd take the vast frontier's endless plains and majestic high country.
He pushed open the tavern door and stepped into its dim, smoky interior. People glanced at him and then looked again as they noticed his scraped, bloody, bruised appearance.
Preacher ignored them and headed for the bar where Kilroy, with his giant, rusty muttonchop whiskers, stood talking to a man with his back to Preacher.
Kilroy looked past the man's shoulder and his eyes widened. "Well, speak of the devil. This is the man you were looking for, sir, right here. This is Preacher."CHAPTER 2
The man at the bar turned to face Preacher. He was middle-aged, with quite a few strands of silver in his dark hair under a fashionable beaver hat. His swallowtail coat, tight trousers, ruffled shirt, and silk ascot were expensive. Lean and handsome, he was clean-shaven and obviously a man who spent most of his time indoors.
That was in direct contrast to Preacher, who wore greasy buckskins and hadn't yet shaved or bathed since arriving in St. Louis earlier that day.
The mountain man's grizzled appearance didn't stop the stranger from extending his hand. "Indeed the man I wanted to meet. My name is Barnabas Pendexter, sir."
Preacher gripped Pendexter's hand and nodded curtly. He was in no mood to palaver with some fancy-dressed fella from back east, but he had a frontiersman's natural politeness. "Pleased to meet you. What can I do for you?"
"I've heard that you know your way around the Rocky Mountains better than any man alive," Pendexter said.
Preacher shrugged. "Folks can say any damned thing they want to. That don't mean it's true."
"But you are quite familiar with the mountains," Pendexter insisted.
"I reckon. I been traipsin' around in 'em for enough years." Preacher's mouth was dry, and his head still hurt. He looked past Pendexter at the tavern's proprietor and said, "I could use a beer, Kilroy."
"Sure," Kilroy said, "but I thought you were done with your drinkin' for the night when you left earlier."
"So did I," Preacher snapped. "Until a bunch of no-good varmints waylaid me right outside your door and handed me a thrashin'."
Kilroy looked surprised again. "How many of the devils were there?"
"Must've been a dozen or more."
"I figured as much. Any less that that and you would've sent 'em packin' with their tails betwixt their legs."
Pendexter said, "Let me understand you, sir. You were assaulted by a dozen men and lived to tell the tale?"
"That's right," Preacher said. "At least one of them didn't, though. You might've heard the shot that killed him."
"Good Lord!" Kilroy exclaimed. "The body's not still out there, is it?"
"No, his friends must've dragged off his worthless carcass. When I came to, the alley was empty except for me." Preacher's eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You're tellin' me you didn't hear the shot, Kilroy?"
He wondered if the tavern keeper might be in cahoots with the robbers. As far as he knew, Kilroy had always been honest ... or at least no more shady than most tavern owners were.
"I heard what sounded like a gun," Kilroy admitted, "but you know how it is along this riverfront, Preacher. Not a night goes by when you don't hear a gunshot or two. After a while you just don't pay attention to them anymore." He shook his head and added solemnly, "Good seldom comes from a man stickin' his nose in somebody else's business."
Preacher supposed that was true, especially in a neighborhood like this. He decided he would give Kilroy the benefit of the doubt and assume that the man hadn't know about the attack and wouldn't receive a cut of the money that had been stolen from him.
If he ever found out differently, he would take it up with Kilroy then ... and it would be a conversation the tavern keeper likely wouldn't enjoy.
Barnabas Pendexter said, "This is a dreadful business. You're going to report it to the authorities, aren't you?"
"That'd be a waste of time and breath," Preacher drawled. "The law don't care about every trapper who gets jumped along the riverfront. If they did, they'd never have time for the important things, like takin' graft from all the businesses around here. Anyway, I didn't ever get a good look at the men who robbed me. One of 'em's got a pretty good gash in him from my knife, though. If I run across a fella like that, I might have some hard questions for him." Preacher looked at the tavern keeper again. "Am I gettin' that beer or not, Kilroy? It'll have to be on the cuff."
"Oh yeah, sure. I forgot." Kilroy filled a pewter mug from a barrel sitting on a heavy wooden stand.
"I'll pay for that, my friend." Pendexter slid a coin across the bar.
Preacher wasn't sure if the Easterner was referring to him or Kilroy as his friend. Nor did he care. If Pendexter wanted to pay for the beer, that was fine. Preacher became a mite more tolerant of civilized folks when he was flat broke.
"I'm obliged to you," he told Pendexter with a nod. He picked up the mug Kilroy set on the bar in front of him, took a deep swallow, and dragged the back of his other hand across his mouth and the thick mustache that drooped over it.
"Those men took every bit of your money?"
"Every bit," Preacher confirmed. "They left me my pistols and knife and tomahawk, and I'm a little surprised they did. Must've been in a hurry."
"Such miscreants are usually afraid of being discovered at their nefarious work."
Preacher downed another healthy swallow. "How come you were lookin' for me, Mr. Pendexter?"
"Yes, back to business," Pendexter said briskly. "I have a proposition for you. Shall we adjourn to an empty table and discuss it?"
Preacher didn't think it was very likely he'd be interested in Pendexter's "proposition," but the man had bought him a beer so he figured the only polite thing to do was hear him out. Besides, his throat wasn't nearly as dry, and the beer had helped his headache. He picked up the mug and said, "Sure, I reckon we can do that."
The tavern was fairly loud with laughter and conversation to start with, and while Preacher and Pendexter were making their way across the room to a table in one corner, a couple of old-timers brought out fiddles and started sawing on them.
The music they made, if a person was feeling generous enough to call it that, was shrill and raucous, but it prompted one of the girls who worked in the tavern to lift her skirts around her ankles and start dancing a jig.
Some of the customers began to clap and call out encouragement to her. A burly man in whipcord and homespun stood up and linked arms with her, whirling her around in the impromptu dance. Other men got in line to wait their turn.
Pendexter grinned, sat down at the table, and said loudly enough for Preacher to hear him over the music, "My, this certainly is a colorful place, isn't it?"
"You could call it that," Preacher said.
Excerpted from PREACHER'S BLOOD HUNT by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2014 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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