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THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN Preacher's Showdown
By William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2008 William W. Johnstone
All right reserved.
Chapter OneCivilization stank.
As the man called Preacher paddled the canoe down the Mississippi River, he scented St. Louis before he ever came in sight of the settlement sprawled along the west bank of the stream the Indians called the Father of Waters. The smell was a mixture of wood smoke, tanning hides, boiling lye, rotting fish, burned meat, and a hundred other less-than-pleasant aromas. Preacher preferred to think of it as just the smell of civilization, and he thought it stank.
But then, he reckoned that after months in the wilderness, he was no fragrant flower. And the plews piled up in front of him and behind him in the canoe didn't smell too good neither. He chuckled. Soon enough, he'd be rid of the plews, since he planned to sell them first thing when he reached the settlement. Then he'd find a place to stay and maybe soak off in a tub full of hot water some of the months of grime that had collected on his body. Some folks claimed it was unhealthy to bathe too often, and the life Preacher had chosen to lead was already perilous enough as it was, but sometimes a fella just had to live dangerously.
Preacher was a tall, rangy man, although his height wasn't too evident while he was sitting in the canoe. His broad shoulders and muscular arms strained at the buckskins he wore and revealed the power in his body. His long, thick hair was black as midnight, save for a few silver strands, as was the bushy beard that concealed the lower half of his rugged face. His eyes, shaded by the broad brim of his felt hat, were dark and deep-set under prominent brows. His face and hands were tanned to the color of old saddle leather. He was in his early thirties, having been born as the eighteenth century turned to the nineteenth. He was no longer considered a young man in this day and age, but Preacher's active, outdoor life and iron constitution gave him the strength and vigor and attitude of someone younger.
He had left home at an early age, not really running away from the farm or his family, but rather running toward something-the lure of the unknown. He wanted to see the vast American frontier, and the best way to do that was to just set out on his own two feet.
Ever since then, he'd been wandering. After spending some time on the river, he had joined up with Andy Jackson's army and fought the British down at the town of New Orleans back in 1814. Then he had headed west with some mountain men, and except for occasional forays back to civilization in St. Louis or down yonder in Texas, he had spent the intervening years in the Rockies, making his living by trapping beaver and other animals and selling their pelts, and trying to stay out of trouble.
He hadn't been any too successful in that last goal.
But he'd spent the previous spring trapping and had a good load of plews, so he thought it would be all right to make a trip downriver to sell them, then head back up the Missouri for the fall season. The fur companies had begun to establish trading posts in the mountains where he could have disposed of his pelts, but Preacher had a hankering to visit the settlements again. He knew it was probably a mistake to do so. He wouldn't be happy once he got there and would be eager to get back to the frontier. But he had come anyway.
The river was narrower here than it was farther downstream, but it was still a pretty impressive thing, flowing as it did between high, wooded banks. Preacher figured he was still a mile or more above St. Louis. The south breeze would carry the smell of the settlement that far. His muscles worked with smooth efficiency as he dug the paddle into the water first on one side of the canoe, then on the other. The sleek craft, made of slabs of bark sealed together with pitch, cut through the water.
Preacher heard the dull boom of a shot at the same time as he saw the lead ball plunk into the water with a small splash just in front of the canoe's bow. His keen-eyed gaze went to the west bank of the river, where he spotted a puff of smoke floating in the air.
Some son of a buck had just taken a shot at him!
Come pretty damned close, too, considering the range. Preacher's long-barreled flintlock rifle lay across the canoe slats in front of him. He put the paddle down and snatched up the weapon. It was already loaded and primed-an unloaded weapon wouldn't do a fella a lot of good if trouble came at him unexpectedly-so all he had to do was lift it to his shoulder and ear back the hammer. He figured the bushwhacker on the riverbank would have moved as soon as he fired that first shot. Question was, had he gone right or left?
One guess was just as likely to be correct as the other, so Preacher followed his gut and aimed just to the left of where he'd seen that puff of powder smoke. He pressed the trigger. The rifle roared and kicked back against his shoulder.
He didn't know if he hit the bushwhacker or not, but a moment later he heard the faint drumming of hoofbeats and saw a haze of dust rising in the air. Somebody was taking off for the tall and uncut over yonder, and Preacher figured it was the varmint who had tried to shoot him.
"Damn pirate," he said as his eyes narrowed with disgust. He figured the bushwhacker had a canoe hidden over there on the bank somewhere, and if the man had succeeded in killing him, he would have paddled out, tied a line to Preacher's canoe, and towed it back into shore with its load of furs.
Preacher couldn't even begin to understand why a man would rather steal and even kill than work for a living, but he knew that a lot of folks were that way.
He reloaded the rifle and placed it back in the bottom of the canoe, in easy reach in case he needed it again. Then he picked up the paddle and started back in with it-right, left, right, left, on down the river to St. Louis.
A number of keelboats and steamboats were tied up at the docks extending into the Mississippi from the settlement's waterfront. Not being fond of crowds, Preacher headed for shore before he reached that point. He found a place at the edge of town where he could pull the canoe out of the water, and put in there. A chunky boy about ten years old, wearing a coonskin cap, watched with great interest as the tall, rawboned, buckskin-clad man dragged the canoe full of pelts onto the shore.
Preacher turned and grinned at the youngster. "Howdy, son," he said.
In an awestruck voice, the boy asked, "Are you a mountain man, mister?"
"You betcha," Preacher replied, still grinning.
The boy pointed at the rifle in Preacher's hands and the pair of flintlock pistols bucked behind his wide belt. "Are them guns loaded?"
"They sure are. Wouldn't do me much good if they weren't, happen I should need 'em, now would they?"
"No, I reckon not. You ever shoot any Injuns?"
Preacher nodded, his expression solemn now. "Been known to," he said. "But only when they didn't give me no other choice. And I been good friends with a whole heap o' redskins, too."
"My pa says all Injuns are bad. He says they're all heathen savages."
"I reckon that's because he ain't never met the right ones. Indians is like any other kind o' folks. Some are the best friends you'll ever find, and some are just low-down skunks. You'd do well to remember that, younker."
The boy nodded.
"You know a gent name of Joel Larson?" Preacher went on. Larson worked for one of the fur companies here in St. Louis, and Preacher had done business with him on several occasions in the past. Larson was honest and could be counted on to give him a fair price for his pelts.
"I know who he is," the boy said. "My pa works in the fur warehouses."
Preacher nodded. "Would you do me a favor?"
The boy's eyes widened. "Sure!"
"Go down to the docks and find Mr. Larson for me. Tell him that Preacher's waitin' up here with a load o' plews to sell to him."
The youngster's eyes bugged out even more. "You're the fella they call Preacher?"
"Yep. Last time I looked anyway." Preacher dug in one of the pockets of his buckskins and brought out an elk's tooth. "Here you go," he said as he tossed the tooth to the boy. "That's for helpin' me out."
The boy had plucked the tooth out of the air and now stood there for a second, staring at it in awe. Not only was the famous mountain man known as Preacher asking him for help, but Preacher was even willing to give him an elk's tooth as payment. Everybody knew that elk's teeth were good luck.
"Run along now."
"Yes, sir!" Clutching the lucky token in his pudgy hand, the youngster turned around and ran toward the docks and warehouses along the waterfront.
Preacher sat on a tree stump and waited. A short time later, the boy returned, and following him was a dark-haired, mustachioed man in a swallowtail coat and beaver hat. The man smiled at Preacher and said, "I didn't expect to see you for a few weeks yet."
"Trappin' was good," Preacher explained as he shook hands with Joel Larson. Then he waved a hand toward the canoe full of pelts and added, "Reckon you can see that for yourself."
"Indeed I can. I'll look the furs over and make you an offer." Larson glanced over at the boy and went on. "Thank you for fetching me, Jake. Nobody brings in better pelts than Preacher."
"I was glad to, Mr. Larson," the boy piped up. "If you need me to do anything else, Mr. Preacher, sir, you just let me know."
"I'll do that, son," Preacher promised.
Over the next quarter of an hour, Preacher and Larson conducted their business, settling on a mutually agreeable price for the furs. "I'll have to meet you tonight to pay you," Larson said, "but if it's all right with you, I'll get some men up here with a wagon right away to load those pelts and get them in the warehouse."
Preacher nodded. "Fine by me. You ain't never given me any cause not to trust you."
A hard edge in Preacher's voice carried the unspoken warning that it wouldn't be wise to give him any reason for distrust.
Larson chuckled and said, "I certainly don't intend to start now. Where should I look for you?"
"I'll be at Fargo's tavern." Nearly everybody in St. Louis was familiar with the tavern operated by an old riverman named Ford Fargo. Preacher was sure Larson would know where the place was.
Larson nodded and said, "I'll see you later then. You'll keep an eye on those pelts until my men pick them up?"
"Won't let 'em out o' my sight," Preacher promised.
It took another half an hour for Larson's men to arrive with the wagon and start loading the furs. During that time, the boy called Jake pestered Preacher with seemingly endless questions. Preacher put up with it patiently for a while, but Jake was starting to remind him of a particularly annoying magpie by the time Larson's men arrived.
"Where you goin' now, Mr. Preacher?" Jake asked as Preacher headed for Fargo's tavern.
"Got some other things to do," Preacher replied. "And I done told you, boy, just call me Preacher. Ain't no need for the Mister."
"My pa says I ought to respect my elders, and you're pretty old."
Preacher's jaw tightened. "Well, I'll see you later, all right?"
"Can I come with you?"
"No, you run on back to the docks. Where I'm goin' ain't for youngsters."
"You know what a tavern is?"
Understanding dawned on Jake's face. "Ohhhh. You're gonna go get drunk and find yourself a whore."
Preacher frowned. "What the hell-I mean, what in blazes does a young fella like you know about things like that?"
"I know a lot," Jake said with a sage expression on his round face. "I listen when folks talk. Grown-ups don't always pay as much attention to what they're sayin' around kids as they should."
Preacher could believe that. He said, "Well, for your information, I ain't lookin' for no whore, and I don't plan to get drunk."
"Don't you like whiskey and women?"
Preacher gritted his teeth again and wondered if he was going to have to toss this little jackanapes into the river to get away from him.
It didn't come to that because, at that point, a man came along the riverbank calling Jake's name. "Shoot, that's my pa," the boy said. "Reckon it's time to go home for supper. Be seein' you, Mr. Preacher."
"Sure thing," Preacher said, thinking to himself that Jake wouldn't see him again if he saw the inquisitive little varmint first.
Now that he had gotten away from Jake, Preacher headed for the tavern again. He had told the boy the truth-he didn't intend to get drunk.
But a shot of whiskey would sure go down nice right about now.
"You sure that's him?"
"Yeah, I got a good look at him through the spyglass before you took that shot at him. That's the son of a bitch who put a rifle ball through my arm, all right. I got a score to settle with him."
The two men stood behind a run-down shack not far from the river's edge, peering furtively around the corner of the building. They had been watching for the past half hour or so as the dark-bearded mountain man waited for Joel Larson's men to arrive. The tall, sandy-haired one with the prominent Adam's apple wore buckskins and a floppy-brimmed felt hat. The shorter, stockier man was dressed in a shabby black suit and a gray shirt that had once been white. A battered beaver hat was crammed down on a mostly bald head. He had a dirty rag tied around his upper left arm to serve as a bandage. Blood had soaked through the rag in one place, leaving a small crimson stain.
Both men had gaunt, beard-stubbled faces and narrow, hate-filled eyes. Earlier in the afternoon, they had been perched in some brush along the western bank of the river about a mile north of the settlement, waiting for some pilgrim to come along who looked well-heeled enough to rob. The mountain man had certainly filled the bill with that canoe loaded with furs. If the tall man, Schuyler Mims, hadn't missed with his shot, the mountain man would be dead now, and Schuyler and his partner, who went by the name Colin Fairfax, would be selling those furs to Joel Larson.
Instead, Schuyler's aim had been just a little off. The same couldn't be said of the mountain man's aim. His return shot had nicked Fairfax in the arm as he and Mims were trying to get away from the riverbank. The ball hadn't actually gone through his arm as he'd said, but rather had grazed it, knocking out a tiny chunk of flesh. It wasn't a serious wound, but it had hurt like hell and Fairfax had bled like a stuck pig, all the while howling curses as Schuyler tried to patch up the injury.
Fairfax was still angry at his partner for missing, but he was more angry at the mountain man who had so coolly and accurately shot back at them. During the ride back down here to St. Louis, Fairfax had vowed that he would find the man and get even with him for what had happened. The fact that the mishap had occurred while the two of them were trying to murder and rob the mountain man didn't mean anything to him.
Now they had spotted the object of Fairfax's wrath, and spied on him while he was arranging to sell his furs to Joel Larson. Schuyler and Fairfax knew Larson, and had tried to sell him some stolen furs in the past. Larson must have been suspicious, because he'd made such a low offer that the partners had turned it down. They'd wound up selling the pelts to one of the other fur traders, still for less than they were worth.
"No money changed hands," Schuyler pointed out as he and Fairfax withdrew around to the other side of the shack. "Larson's probably gonna meet him later and pay him then."
Fairfax nodded. "In that case, the wisest course of action would be to follow him and wait until our quarry has the cash in hand. Then we'll relieve him of it." An evil smile stretched across the man's face. "And of his life, too, of course."
Excerpted from THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN Preacher's Showdown by William W. Johnstone J. A. Johnstone Copyright © 2008 by William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission.
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