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The First Mountain Man Preacher's Hellstorm
By William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Moving slowly and carefully, Preacher reached out and closed his hand around the butt of a flintlock pistol. The night was black as pitch around him, but he didn't need to be able to see to know where the gun was. He had committed all his surroundings to memory before he rolled in his blankets and dozed off.
Another pistol lay next to the one Preacher grasped, and a flintlock rifle and a tomahawk were nearby as well. Both pistols were double-shotted and heavily charged with powder.
Let the attackers come. He was ready to cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war, as his friend Audie might say. The little fella had been a professor once and was fond of quoting old Bill Shakespeare.
On Preacher's other side, the big wolflike cur he called Dog growled softly. He knew enemies were out there in the night and was eager to tear into them, but he wouldn't attack unless Preacher gave him the go-ahead.
Preacher sat up and put his hand out, resting it on the back of Dog's neck where the fur stood up slightly. He waited and listened, not knowing what had roused him and Dog from slumber.
Preacher's almost supernaturally keen eyes adjusted to the darkness well enough for him to see the rangy gray stallion known as Horse. He stood not far away, head up, ears pricked forward. He'd sensed whatever it was, too. The pack mule Preacher had brought from St. Louis stood with its head down as it dozed.
A breeze drifted through the trees and carried voices to Preacher's ears. He couldn't make out the words, but the tone was familiar.
The voices were Indian, but they weren't on the warpath. If they had been stalking an enemy, they would have done so in grim silence. In this case, they sounded amused.
Preacher was on the edge of Blackfoot country, which meant he didn't see anything funny about the situation. For more than twenty years, he had been coming to the Rocky Mountains every year to harvest pelts from beaver and other fur-bearing animals, and nearly every one of those years, he'd had trouble with various Blackfoot bands.
In fact, it was the Blackfeet who were responsible for the name he carried to this day.
Early on in his frontier sojourn, he had been captured by them and tied to a stake. Come morning, he would have been tortured and eventually burned to death.
However, something had possessed him to start talking, much like a street preacher he had seen back in St. Louis, and when the sun rose he was still going at it, spewing out words in a seemingly never-ending torrent.
Crazy people intrigued and frightened the Indians, and they figured anybody who started talking like that and wouldn't stop had to be loco. Killing somebody who wasn't right in the head was a sure way of bringing down bad medicine on the tribe, so they had scrapped their plans to roast the young man known at that point as Art, and let him go.
Eventually, word of the incident got around — the vast wilderness was a surprisingly small place in some ways — and other mountain men started calling him Preacher. The name stuck. He didn't mind. Eventually, he never thought of himself any other way.
His war with the Blackfeet had continued over the years. He had killed countless numbers of warriors, some in open battle, some by creeping with such stealth into their camps at night and slitting their throats that no one knew he had been there until morning.
They called him the White Wolf, the Ghost Killer, and probably had other names for him, as well. The Blackfoot warrior who finally killed Preacher would be the most honored of his people.
Preacher figured to keep on frustrating that ambition, just as he had for a long time.
As he sat where he had gone to ground to sleep for the night, more than a mile away from where he had built a small fire to cook his supper, he knew he didn't have any friends in those parts. The warriors who were barely within earshot would love to kill him if they got the chance.
For a moment, he considered stalking them, becoming the hunter, but he realized they weren't hunting him. He hadn't seen a soul in more than a week. They weren't looking for him. They were on their way somewhere else, bound on some errand of their own, and already their voices had faded until he could barely hear them.
"Wouldn't make sense to borrow trouble," he whispered to Dog. "Sooner or later it always finds us on its own."
Dog's fur lay down. Horse went back to cropping at some grass. The crisis had passed.
Preacher rolled up in his blankets and went back to sleep, confident that his instincts and his trail companions would awaken him if danger approached again.
* * *
The rest of the night passed without incident. Preacher slept the deep, dreamless sleep of an honest man and got up in the morning ready to press on. He was headed toward an area where he hadn't been in quite a while, hoping to have good luck in his trapping.
For more than thirty years, since a party of men under the command of a man named Manuel Lisa had started up the Missouri River in 1807, men had been coming to these mountains in search of pelts. After all that time, beaver and other fur-bearing varmints were becoming less numerous, and it took more work to find enough of them to make a trip to the Rockies profitable.
That was why Preacher was expanding the territory where he trapped. He didn't really care that much about the money. His needs were simple and few. He loved the mountains. They were his home and had been ever since he first laid eyes on them. He would be there even if he never made a penny from his efforts.
If a fellow was going to work at something, though, he might as well do the best job he could. That was Preacher's philosophy, although he would have scoffed at calling it that.
After a quick breakfast, he saddled Horse and set out, leading the pack mule. Dog bounded ahead of them, full of energy.
Snowcapped peaks rose to Preacher's right and left as he headed up a broad, tree-covered valley broken up occasionally by meadows thick with wildflowers. A fast-flowing creek, fed here and there by smaller streams, ran through the center of the valley. He hoped they would be teeming with beaver.
At the far end of the valley about forty miles away rose a huge, saw-toothed mountain. Something about it stirred a memory in Preacher. After a moment, he gave a little shake of his head and stopped trying to recall the memory. Whatever the recollection might be, it proved elusive.
It would come back to him or it wouldn't, and either way it wasn't likely to change his plans. He intended to make his base of operations at the upper end of the valley, near that saw-toothed peak. He would work the tributaries one at a time, down one side of the valley and then back up the other. That would take him most of the summer.
In the fall he would pack up the pelts he had taken and head back to St. Louis, unless he decided to pay a visit to one of the far-flung trading posts established by the American Fur Company and sell his furs there.
If he did that, he could spend the winter in the mountains as he had done many times in the past, finding some friendly band of Indians who wouldn't object to having him around —
He straightened abruptly in the saddle and peered toward the saw-toothed mountain in the distance. "Well, son of a ... No wonder it seemed familiar to me." He grinned and shook his head. "Wonder if any of 'em are still around."
Maybe he would find out.
* * *
Preacher didn't get in any hurry traveling up the long valley. By the middle of the next day he was about halfway to the point where he intended to set up his main camp. He still hadn't seen another human being, although he had come across plenty of deer, a herd of moose, and a couple bears. He'd left them alone and they'd left him alone. From time to time, eagles and hawks soared overhead, riding the wind currents between the mountains.
When the sun was almost directly overhead, he stopped to let Horse and the pack mule drink from the creek. Hunkering down beside the stream, Preacher set his rifle down within easy reach, then stretched out his left hand and dipped it in the water, which was icy from snowmelt. He scooped some up and drank, thinking nothing had ever tasted better.
The current made his reflection in the water ripple and blur, but he could make out the rugged features, the thick, gray-shot mustache, the thatch of dark hair under the broad-brimmed felt hat he had pushed to the back of his head.
A few feet away, Dog lifted his dripping muzzle from the creek and stiffened. Horse stopped drinking as well.
Preacher acted like nothing had happened, but in reality, his senses had snapped to high alert. He listened intently, sniffed the air, searched the trees on the far side of the creek for any sign of movement.
There! Some branches on a bush had moved more than they would have if it was just some small animal rooting around.
Preacher still didn't rise to his feet or give any other sign he had noticed anything. All he did was carefully and unobtrusively move his hand toward the long-barreled rifle lying on the ground beside him.
Two figures dressed in buckskin suddenly burst out of the brush and trees on the other side of the creek and raced across open ground toward him. Preacher snatched up the rifle and came upright with the swift smoothness of an uncoiling snake. He brought the flintlock to his shoulder and slid his right thumb around the hammer, ready to cock and fire.
He held off as he realized the two Indians weren't attacking him. One was a woman, brown knees flashing under the buckskin dress, visible above the high moccasins she wore.
The other was a young man who carried a bow and had a quiver of arrows on his back but wasn't painted for war. He probably could have outrun the woman, but he held back, staying behind her as if to protect her.
A second later, Preacher saw why. At least half a dozen more buckskin-clad figures raced out of the woods in pursuit and let out bloodcurdling war cries as they spotted not only their quarry but also the white man on the other side of the creek.CHAPTER 2
Instantly, Preacher shifted his aim, cocked the hammer, and pressed the trigger. The hammer snapped down, the powder in the pan ignited, and the rifle boomed and bucked against his shoulder. The mountain man's aim was true. The heavy lead ball smashed into the chest of the man in the forefront of the attackers and drove him backwards off his feet.
Preacher dropped the rifle butt first on the creek bank so dirt wouldn't foul the barrel. His hands swept toward the pistols tucked behind the broad leather belt around his waist as he shouted, "Get down!"
The young Indian man tackled the woman from behind and bore her to the ground. Preacher's pistols came up and roared. Smoke and flame spurted from the muzzles as they sent their double-shotted loads over the heads of the fleeing pair.
The volley cut down three more of the attackers, although one appeared only wounded as a ball ripped through his thigh. Preacher dropped the empty pistols next to the rifle. Two more pistols were in his saddlebags, loaded and primed, but it would take too long to reach them.
He jerked his tomahawk from behind his belt and charged across the creek, water splashing around his feet and legs as he charged. Dog was right beside him, growling and snarling.
Like a streak of gray fur and flashing teeth, the big cur leaped on one of the attackers and took him down. The man began to scream as Dog ripped at his throat, but the sound was quickly cut short.
At the same time, the young man rolled up onto one knee, put a hand on the woman's shoulder for a second in a signal for her to stay down, and then plucked an arrow from the quiver on his back and fitted it to his bowstring. A loud twang sounded as he let it fly.
Following Preacher's example, he dropped his bow and grabbed his tomahawk as he bounded to his feet.
Four of the attackers were still on their feet, but one of them staggered as he clutched the shaft of the arrow embedded in his chest. Counting the five men down, the original party had numbered nine.
Preacher, Dog, and the young man had cut the odds by more than half, but they were still outnumbered.
In Preacher's case, that wasn't hardly fair.
He moved like a whirlwind, lashing out right and left with the tomahawk. The stone head crashed against the head of an attacker, splintering bone under the impact. The warrior dropped, dead before he hit the ground.
Preacher pivoted and launched a blow toward a second warrior, who managed to block the mountain man's stroke with his own tomahawk. As the weapons clashed, the man launched a kick at Preacher's groin. Preacher twisted and took the man's heel on his thigh.
A few yards away, the young man went after the uninjured warrior, but the man with the wounded thigh lurched into his path. The young man's tomahawk came down and split the man's skull, cleaving into his brain.
The dying man fell forward, tangling with the young man, and both fell to the ground.
Preacher whirled to the side as his opponent tried desperately to brain him. The mountain man's tomahawk swept around and slashed across the attacker's throat. Flesh was no match for sharpened flint. Blood spouted from the wound as the man choked and gurgled. He dropped his tomahawk and put both hands to his ruined throat, but he couldn't stop the crimson flood.
His knees buckled and he pitched forward.
Preacher turned in time to see the youngster struggling to get a buckskin-clad carcass off him. The last member of the war party bent over them, tomahawk raised as he looked for an opening to strike.
Preacher threw his 'hawk. It revolved through the air, turning over the perfect number of times for the head to smash into the Indian's left shoulder and lodge there.
The man staggered back a step and dropped his own tomahawk. He turned and ran toward the trees, obviously realizing he was outnumbered, and wounded, to boot.
The young man finally succeeded in shoving the dead warrior off him. He sprang to his feet, grabbed the tomahawk the fleeing man had dropped, and flung it after him.
The throw missed narrowly as the 'hawk whipped past the man's head. A heartbeat later he disappeared into the trees.
Preacher started after the man, not wanting him to get away. To do that he had to pass the woman, who reached up, grabbed his hand, and said, "Preacher!"
That stopped him in his tracks. He looked down at her, wondering how she knew him.
Of course, he was known to many of the tribes. Up and down the Rocky Mountains from Canada to the Rio Grande, he was an enemy to some but a friend to many.
The woman looked up at him with a clear, steady gaze. Since she was holding his hand already, Preacher tightened his grip and easily lifted her to her feet.
The young man who had come out of the trees with her picked up his bow and turned toward them. A frown creased his forehead.
Preacher didn't pay much attention to him. His attention was on the woman as something stirred inside him.
She was a handsome woman, close to his own age. He could tell that by the faint lines on her face and the silver threads among her otherwise raven-black hair, which was cut short around her head. The years had thickened her waist slightly, but her body was still strong and well-curved under the buckskin dress.
From her short hair and the beading and other decorations on her dress, he could tell she was Absaroka, a tribe with which he had always been friendly. The young man's clothes and the long hair that hung far down his back marked him as a member of the same tribe.
As Preacher looked back and forth between them, he noted an even stronger similarity. He could see the resemblance in their eyes and in the cut of their jaws. Unless he missed his guess, the woman was the boy's mama.
Something else about the youngster struck him as familiar, too, but damned if he could say what it was. He had never laid eyes on the young man before. He was pretty sure of that.
He couldn't say the same for the woman. He looked at her and wanted to call her by name, but he couldn't quite do it. The words wouldn't come to his tongue.
She spoke in the language of the Absarokas. "Preacher. It really is you."
"Reckon it is," he replied, equally fluent in her tongue even though he hadn't been born to it.
"I prayed to Gitche Manitou, the Great Spirit, that we would find you. When we fled from our home, it was to look for you, but I did not dare to dream fate would bring us together again."
"I know you," Preacher said as he looked down into her dark eyes. "But I can't quite remember ..."
He saw what looked like a flicker of pain in those eyes and wished he hadn't said it. Clearly, whatever had happened between them had meant more to her than it had to him.
It had been a long time ago. The memory was too dim and faded. He knew he hadn't seen her in recent years.
But it had stayed alive and clear in her mind. A faintly sad smile touched her lips as she said, "My name is Bird in the Tree."
Preacher drew in a deep, sharp breath as the memories flooded back. "I knew a girl named Bird in the Tree, but it was many, many years ago. I called her Birdie ..."
Excerpted from The First Mountain Man Preacher's Hellstorm by William W. Johnstone, J. A. Johnstone. Copyright © 2017 J. A. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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