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THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN PREACHER'S PURSUIT
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
Copyright © 2009
William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter One Preacher pressed his back against the gully's rock wall and tightened his hands on the flintlock rifle he carried slantwise across his chest. He listened intently, ignoring the thudding of his heart and trying instead to pick up the stealthy sounds of the man creeping up the gully after him.
His side stung a little where a rifle ball had ripped his buckskin shirt and burned across his flesh. He put that pain out of his head, too. 'Tweren't nothin', he told himself. He'd been hurt lots worse plenty of times.
A tall man in his thirties, dark-haired and bearded, lean-bodied but still powerfully built, Preacher knew these mountains as well as most men knew their own faces ... or the bodies of their wives. The two varmints who'd tried to ambush him had made a bad mistake in doing so.
One of them had already paid the ultimate price. He lay dead or dying on one of the slopes higher up, his guts torn open by a shot from Preacher's rifle.
His companion was still alive, though. He was the one trying to sneak up on Preacher now. Normally, Preacher would have just waited for the man to come along and then blown a hole through him, but that was hard to do without any powder.
A lucky shot aimed at him had clipped the rawhide thong by which the powder horn was slung over Preacher's shoulder. It had skittered over the edge of a long drop, gone before he could even try to grab it. He had already emptied his rifle and both pistols while trading lead with the two would-be killers, so he couldn't reload.
But that didn't mean the man called Preacher was helpless. Far from it.
He'd been toiling up a long, steep slope to check on some traps. His horse and dog were down at the base of the slope, left behind because there was no real reason for them to have to make the tiring climb. He was halfway to the top when he heard the shrill neigh from Horse and the half-snarl, half-bark from Dog and recognized them as warning signals. Somebody was close-by who shouldn't be.
The first shot had rung out as Preacher started to turn. The heavy lead ball struck a small rock near his feet and blew it to smithereens. He saw the puff of powder smoke from a clump of fir trees and was bringing his rifle to his shoulder to return fire when another rifle cracked from above him and he felt the fiery lance slice across his side.
They had him between 'em, drat the luck.
He let loose with a round aimed at the fir trees anyway, then turned and dashed along the face of the slope, figuring to work his way around a rocky shoulder that jutted out ahead of him. More shots came after him, but his long legs carried him too fast for the lead to find him.
He reached the shoulder, ducked around it. Behind him, a couple of men yelled at each other. White men, Preacher noted. They were speaking English, peppered with a lot of cussin'.
"I got him, I tell you!"
"The hell you did! Did you see the way that bastard was runnin'? No son of a bitch who was wounded could move that damned fast!"
He could tell from the sound of their voices that they were angling toward him from above and below. He set the rifle down and drew the pistols from behind his belt. Both were double-shotted, with powder charges heavy enough that the recoil from them might break the wrist of a normal man.
Preacher was anything but normal.
He heard rocks clatter close by, kicked loose by the man who was closing in from above. Preacher swung around the rugged knob and saw the man trying to skid to a stop about fifteen feet away and bring his rifle to bear. Preacher squeezed the trigger of his right-hand pistol before the muzzle of the rifle could line up on him.
One of the balls missed, but the other one plunked itself in the man's belly. He screamed as he doubled over and pitched forward, rolling a couple of times before he came to a stop. He kept writhing and wailing.
"You son of a bitch!"
The cry came from the other man, who fired a pistol at Preacher even though he was still a good forty feet away. The ball missed, but it came close enough that Preacher heard the hum of its passage through the air. He darted around the rocky shoulder, stuck the empty pistol behind his belt, grabbed up his rifle, and started running again.
He had gotten a good look at the man he'd shot, and knew that he had never seen the son of a buck before. The fella was squat and bearded, with a big felt hat that had fallen off when he collapsed. Preacher hadn't taken the time to study the other fella's face, but he had a feeling he had never seen that one either.
Now, why would two men he had never met before want to kill him? He had a decent mess of plews back at his camp, but nothing worth killing-or dying-over.
Preacher didn't spend a lot of time pondering the question. It was enough to know that they'd tried to ventilate him, which, according to his way of thinking, meant it was perfectly all right for him to blow their lights out.
He kind of wanted to talk to that second man, though, and maybe find out what was going on here. That meant he had to take the rapscallion alive.
For that reason alone, Preacher hurried along the side of the mountain, looking for a spot where he could turn the tables on his pursuer and get the drop on the man. Otherwise, he never would have run.
Fleeing from trouble stuck in his craw. He had always been one to face up to it head-on. That was the way he had lived his life ever since he came West some twenty years earlier.
Of course, he hadn't come straight to these mountains. There'd been a little matter of fighting the British first at New Orleans, under ol' Andy Jackson ...
Preacher put those thoughts out of his mind, too. Bein'chased across a mountain by some son of a gun who wanted to kill him was no time for reminiscing.
Preacher threw on the brakes as he leaped over a rocky hump and found himself teetering on the brink of a hundred-foot drop. Footsteps pounded behind him. He still had one loaded pistol, so he whirled around and brought the gun up. He and the man chasing him fired at the same time.
That was when the ball clipped Preacher's powder horn loose, just as neat as you please, and over the edge it went without even bouncing once. The two balls from his pistol powdered rock at the man's feet and made him skip backward with a yelp of alarm.
Left now with empty weapons and no way to reload, Preacher turned and stepped off the edge of the cliff, vanishing into empty air. The fella chasing him let out a startled yell.
Preacher hadn't done away with himself, though. He had spotted a narrow ledge about a dozen feet below the rim with some hardy bushes growing on it. He landed with a lithe agility and grabbed hold of some branches to steady himself and keep from plunging the rest of the way to the bottom.
Once he had his balance, he began working his way quickly along the ledge. The cliff face jutted out above him, cutting him off from the other man's view. More importantly, the varmint couldn't get a shot at him from up there.
But the man could hear the pebbles that Preacher kicked off the ledge clattering all the way down the drop-off, so he could track his quarry by the sound of Preacher's passage. Likewise, Preacher heard the fella scurrying along up above.
The ledge angled down, and eventually Preacher found himself at the bottom where a narrow creek twisted its way along the base of the cliff. He followed it and came to the gully. During snowmelt season a stream probably ran through it, but it was dry now, so Preacher followed it, deliberately making enough of a racket so that the man behind him would be able to tell where he had gone.
So that was where he found himself now, wounded slightly, a little winded, and with empty guns.
But he still had a hunting knife with a long, heavy, razor-sharp blade, and there was a Crow tomahawk tucked behind his belt as well. He wasn't defenseless, not by a long shot.
He hadn't moved for several minutes. The fella chasing him had to be wondering by now if Preacher had given him the slip. Preacher heard him drawing closer, hurrying along now and muttering frustrated obscenities to himself.
"Sumbitch couldn't've got away. Maybe Jonah was right. Maybe he was wounded. I know he came along here, damn his hide."
The words came clearly to Preacher's ears, along with the panting breaths that the man took. He was right around the bend in the gully where Preacher had waited ...
The man stepped around the bend and yelled in alarm as Preacher lunged at him, swinging the empty rifle. He jerked his own rifle up, not trying to fire the weapon, just making a desperate effort to fend off Preacher's rifle.
The flintlocks came together with a loud clash of wood and metal, knocking the rifle out of the man's hands, and the blow Preacher aimed at his head bounced off his shoulder instead.
That still had to hurt. The man yelled again and lowered his head, driving forward with powerful thrusts of his legs while Preacher was slightly off balance. He was almost as tall as Preacher and weighed more, and when his head slammed into Preacher's chest, Preacher was knocked backward.
The collision sent both men sprawling to the ground. When Preacher slammed into the earth, it jolted the rifle out of his hands.
No great loss, he thought. The rifle was empty, and it wasn't very good for fighting at close quarters anyway. A long-barreled flintlock only made a good club when you had room to swing it.
He snatched his tomahawk from behind his belt and swung it instead. The other man rolled out of the way, his desperation giving him the speed to barely avoid the tomahawk's slashing head.
He kicked out at Preacher as he moved. The heel of his boot caught Preacher on the elbow, making Preacher's entire right arm go numb. The tomahawk slipped out of his fingers, but he caught it with his left hand before it hit the ground.
The man grabbed Preacher's arm and twisted it. Preacher aimed a knee at the man's groin and sank it deep. The man screamed in Preacher's face but didn't let go.
They rolled over and over, grappling with each other. The man's hat came off. Long, fair hair flopped over his face. A mustache of the same shade drooped over his mouth. Preacher was more certain than ever now that he had never seen this varmint before.
That was mighty curious, too. Usually when folks tried to kill him, they had a good reason, or what they thought was a good reason anyway.
The man drove his face at the side of Preacher's head. His mouth was open, and Preacher knew what was coming next. The son of a bitch wanted to bite his ear off!
Preacher jerked his head to the side, avoiding the snapping teeth. He whipped it back the other way so that their skulls banged together. Preacher would match the hardness of his noggin against anybody else's, but he had to admit that he saw stars dancing around behind his eyes. Both men groaned and seemed a little addlepated.
The feeling was coming back into Preacher's right arm and hand. He reached for his knife and closed his fingers around the leather-wrapped handle. He pulled the weapon free of his belt and slashed at the man's legs with it.
The blade cut through buckskin and flesh. The man howled, let go of Preacher's other arm, and drove the ball of his hand hard against Preacher's jaw. Preacher's head was forced back until it felt like his neckbone would crack.
Whoever this fella was, he could fight! He was almost as adept at rough-and-tumble as Preacher.
But there was only one Preacher, and he had come by his reputation as the toughest he-coon in the mountains honestlike. Preacher kneed the man again, in the belly this time instead of the balls. He walloped him across the face with the brass ball that was at the end of the knife's grip. The man's struggles were growing weaker now.
Sensing maybe that he was losing the fight, the blond man made a last-ditch effort. He heaved himself up off the ground, arching his back so that Preacher was thrown off to the side. Then he rolled over and scrambled frantically for the rifle he had dropped when the fight began.
He was closer to the weapon and got there before Preacher could stop him. Grabbing the rifle, he lunged to his feet and swung around, earing the hammer back to full cock. Preacher scrambled up, too, and saw the barrel swinging relentlessly toward him.
The survival instinct took over then. Preacher still gripped the tomahawk in his left hand, but he was almost as deadly with his left hand as he was with his right. His arm swept up and back and then flashed forward.
The 'hawk spun across the space between the two men with blinding speed and landed with a meaty thunk! just as the man pulled the trigger. The flintlock roared, but its owner was already going over backward, his skull split open by the tomahawk that had landed with terrific force in the middle of his forehead. He fell on his back and lay there twitching as blood and brains oozed out around the blade.
"Well, hell!" Preacher said with heartfelt disgust. The man wouldn't be answering any questions now.
And Preacher still had no earthly idea why the two varmints wanted him dead.
Chapter Two The settlement had no name. It wasn't even much of a settlement, at least so far. And it would be just fine with Preacher if it stayed that way.
First had come the trading post established by a pair of cousins, Corliss and Jerome Hart, who had been brought here to this beautiful valley in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains by Preacher. They'd had some mishaps and adventures along the way, but things had finally settled down once they got here. Corliss and his wife Deborah had even unofficially adopted the boy Jake, who had run away from his brute of a father in St. Louis and come along on the wagon train journey that had ended here.
Another wagon train had followed close behind, bringing with it a handful of settlers-and customers for the trading post, which was doing a brisk business even before the building that housed it was completed.
Word of the trading post and tiny settlement had spread among the fur trappers and traders who made their living from the beavers and other animals in the mountains. There had been other trading posts out here far beyond the normal reach of civilization-one in almost the same spot as the Hart cousins'venture, in fact, some twenty years earlier, not long after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned from their epic journey to explore the Louisiana Purchase.
None of those posts had lasted for more than a few years, though. Savage Indians, brutal weather, disease ... something had always happened to either wipe out the businesses or send their owners fleeing back to civilization.
Corliss and Jerome Hart swore that their trading post would be different. They would stick it out, they said, come hell or high water. The fact that Preacher had befriended them during their journey West gave their claims some credence. Everybody west of the Mississippi and north of the Rio Grande knew Preacher, knew the sort of man he was.
So the trappers came to the post, and so did the traders. Some of them had Indian wives, and they built a handful of cabins near the post, sturdy log cabins that reminded them of the homes they had left behind back East.
Of course, not all the men wanted to be reminded of such things. Some of them had come West to get away from unpleasantness back East. But the little noname settlement grew anyway. A few of the trappers even went back to St. Louis and brought out their real wives, the ones they had married in a church or a judge's chambers instead of the ones they just shared buffalo robes with in lodges made of hides.
There had been a minister with that first wagon train, and as time went by more missionaries showed up. Not black-robed Jesuits like the ones who had been some of the first white men to penetrate the vast Canadian wilderness and on across the border into the northern reaches of the United States. No, these missionaries were Baptists, and they brought their wives and even their children with them. Within a year, nigh on to a hundred people lived within rifle shot of the Harts' trading post.
It made Preacher's skin crawl to think about it. Having so many people around in St. Louis was bad enough, but he could handle it because he made the trip down the Missouri River only once or twice a year. But he visited the trading post more often than that, and whenever he did he felt cramped, like he didn't have any elbow room, and it seemed like there were too many folks breathing the mountain air. They might use it up, he worried, although that seemed unlikely when he looked at the vast blue arch of the sky above the mountains.
Excerpted from THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN PREACHER'S PURSUIT by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2009 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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