The Price of Gold
A wagon train winding through the remote reaches of the Rocky Mountain high country can attract plenty of scavengers—some of them human—like Vic Bedell and his gang of cutthroats. All he wants is the women, who can be traded for gold mine supplies . . . or used for whatever else he has in mind. But he didn’t count on Preacher leading that train.
The Color of Blood
Bedell’s first mistake is leaving the First Mountain Man for dead. His second mistake is underestimating Preacher’s strength . . . and cunning. And Preacher needs all he can get to lead a hundred and fifty helpless ladies out of captivity through fifteen hundred miles of unforgiving territory filled with hostile Indians—and the deadliest threat of all: Bedell and his wild avengers . . .
Praise for the novels of William W. Johnstone
“[A] rousing, two-fisted saga of the growing American frontier.”—Publishers Weekly on Eyes of Eagles
“There’s plenty of gunplay and fast-paced action as this old-time hero proves again that a steady eye and quick reflexes are the keys to survival on the Western frontier.”—Curled Up with a Good Book on Dead Before Sundown
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The First Mountain
By Absaroka Ambush
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1993 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
No matter how thin you slice it, it's still baloney.
Alfred E. Smith
It was still winter in the high country when the man called Preacher packed up his few possessions and stood for a moment before pulling out.
"Horse," he said, "I think you and me have done agreed to a bad deal."
His horse, named Hammer, turned his head and rolled his eyes, as if saying that he didn't have a damn thing to do with any deal Preacher might have made.
Preacher looked at Hammer. "All right, all right. Stop lookin' at me that-away. I'll make a deal with you. You don't give me no trouble on this run, and with the money I was promised, when we get back I'll put you out to pasture in a pretty little valley and you can live out the rest of your days with a whole herd of mares. How about that?"
Hammer stared at him for a moment, and then snorted.
"I'll take that as a yes," Preacher said, then gathered up the lead rope of his pack horse and swung into the saddle. He pointed Hammer's nose east.
It was not uncommon for solitary-riding men to talk to their horses, and Preacher was no exception. A mountain man's life was a self-imposed lonely one, and he had not seen a white man all winter; spotting only the occasional Indian during the long winter months. The Indians had left him alone, and he'd returned the favor. Preacher was not a hunter of trouble, but he damn sure wouldn't back away from it if trouble came calling. And the Indians knew that only too well.
Preacher topped a rise and stopped for a moment, knowing he was sky-lining himself, but not terribly worried about it. Hammer was relaxed, and Hammer was a better watchdog than any canine that Preacher had ever seen. If there had been any Injuns about, Hammer would have let him know.
Near as Preacher could figure it, he had near'abouts seven hundred and fifty miles to go to the jump-off place in Missouri. And while the government had agreed to pay him more money than he had ever seen in his whole life, Preacher damn sure had misgivings about this job.
If them men out yonder in the northwest had such a cravin' for womenfolk to marry up with, seemed to Preacher like they could do their own fetchin'.
But they hadn't, and the government man had handed the job to him.
Preacher figured he might just retire after this job was over and done. Providin' he got it done, that is.
He walked Hammer on down the slope to the valley below. The government man had said there would be between a hundred and twenty-five and a hundred and fifty women ready to move west across the mountains.
Preacher shuddered at the thought.
He'd spent all winter trying to figure out a way to hand the job to someone else. But he hadn't come up with anybody he'd felt was dumb enough to take it. Besides, he'd given his word, and Preacher had never broken his word to anybody in his life. The government man had also said there'd be fifty wagons. Preacher would make a bet it would be more like seventy-five or eighty wagons.
First thing he'd have to do is dress up about half of them women in men's britches to fool the Injuns. If the Injuns ever found out there wasn't no more than a handful of menfolks with the wagons, they'd attack. And before they pulled out, Preacher would have to find out how many of the women knew how to shoot, and how well.
"Boy," he said to the lonesome beauty of the wilderness around him, "you can damn sure get yourself into some pickles. And this is about the sourest barrel you ever dropped into."
As soon as the other mountain men within a two hundred mile radius had learned of the agreement Preacher had made with the government, they had immediately left the area, knowing that Preacher would be sure to ask them to help him out, and not wanting any part of it.
"Cowards," Preacher muttered, for the thousandth time that winter. "A-leavin' me to do this by myself." But he knew there wasn't none of them that were cowards. They was just showin' a whole lot of uncommon good sense.
"Probably a lot more than I got," Preacher muttered. "Come on, Hammer. Let's make tracks."
A very uneventful week later, Preacher had put the High Lonesome of the Rockies behind him and was on the flats. He had not seen a living human soul and that suited him just fine. He angled south for a day and then once more cut east toward Missouri. As he rode, he tried to figure out what year it was. He thought it must be 1839. Someone had told him it was '38 last year, so it stood to reason. Providin' the person who told him it was 1838 knew what the hell he was talkin' about, that is.
In his mind, Preacher was going over the trail that lay behind him; the trail that some folks had taken to calling the Oregon Trail. But that was not official yet.
Since there was no way to talk the women out of this fool's mission, Preacher was working out in his head the best way to lead these female types with marryin' on the mind to the coast. The Injuns were getting some worked up about all the people with a sudden urge to move west, and for sure there was going to be trouble with them.
All in all, Preacher thought glumly, I have got myself into a mess.
Then he saw the smoke and reined up short. He hopped off Hammer, ground reined him, and with Hawken rifle in hand, edged up closer for a look-see. Preacher grinned. It was Blackjack Perkins, live and in the flesh. If there was a surlier man anywheres to be found than Blackjack, Preacher didn't know of him. But Blackjack was a man to ride the river with, and if he give his word, it was same as chiseled in stone.
Preacher knew Hammer and the packhorse would stay right where he left them, come hell or high winds, so he wasn't worried about them. He began Injunin' up on Blackjack, the devilment fairly popping out of his eyes.
Blackjack was hummin' to himself, as he was boilin' coffee and fryin' bacon and stirrin' up a pot of beans. Blackjack had himself a regular feast a-goin'.
Preacher had worked in close and Blackjack's horses were beginning to get a little skittish. Blackjack cut his eyes toward them and without giving anything away, reached for his rifle with one hand and kept on stirrin' the beans with the other. Preacher grinned and decided the game was up; Blackjack's horses was near'bouts as good at watchin' as his own.
"Steady now, Blackjack," Preacher called, still on his belly in case Blackjack wanted to shoot first and feel sorry about it later. "It's me, Preacher."
The big buckskin-clad and bearded mountain man relaxed and said, "Show yourself, you damn reprobate. I'd recognize you anywhere. You be so ugly you frighten the flight right out of birds. I believe the last time I caught a glimpse of you was back in '35 on Horse Crick."
"You be right on one point, Blackjack," Preacher said, rising to his feet in one fluid movement. "But if I was you, I wouldn't be talkin' none 'bout ugly. Even your dogs run away from home. I'll fetch my horses and then partake of your grub."
"You got any salt, Preacher?"
"I do for a fact."
"I run out. I found me a lick a few days ago, but I didn't feel like fightin' no puma over it. He'd nailed him a deer and I never liked to disturb no man nor beast whilst they's feastin."
"That's right considerate of you. But I'm fixin' to disturb you."
"You ain't gonna get me to hep you lead them petticoats to the coast," Blackjack called. "You can put that slap out of what good sense you got left."
"It never entered my mind," Preacher said, leading his horses into camp. "How'd you hear about that anyways?"
"Ever'body from the Missouri to the Pacific knows about that," Blackjack said, pointing to the coffeepot. "That's why you ain't seen nobody for the past week — and you hasn't seen nobody, has you?"
"For a fact it's been sorta lonesome," Preacher admitted.
Blackjack grunted. "It's gonna get worser, too." He shook his shaggy head. "A hundred and fifty or so wimmen headin' into the big lonesome. I never heared of such a thing in all my borned days. Foolish, is what it is."
"Yeah, it's gonna be a real challenge," Preacher said with a straight face. "That's for a fact. It's gonna take a real special kind of man to get this done. Most men I know just don't have the sand to do it."
Blackjack's eyes cut to Preacher. "What the hell do you mean by that, Preacher?"
Preacher poured him a tin cup of coffee and shrugged his muscular shoulders. "Just what I said, Blackjack."
"Are you suggestin' that I ain't got the wherewithal to see it done?"
Preacher looked hurt. "Now, Blackjack ... did you hear me say that?"
"You better not say it, neither." He tossed Preacher a plate. "Eat. Grub's done." While Preacher was filling his plate, Blackjack eyeballed the pistols strapped around Preacher's waist. "What the hellfire is them things? I ain't never seen nothin' like that in my life."
"They take some gettin' used to, but once a body gets the hang of 'em, they give you eight times the firepower. And I been practicin', too. I can shuck these outta leather faster than you can blink."
"So I heared. You might be on to something with them terrible- lookin' pistols, Preacher. I heared ol' Duckworth call you a gunfighter. He was at the fort when you plugged them three men last year. Gunfighter ..." he tasted the word. "Has a ring to it, don't it?"
Preacher nodded his head and chewed for a time. "I best be headin' out, Blackjack. I got to head past the Mississippi to find me some men with the backbone to help me take them women west."
Blackjack threw his fork to the ground and glared at Preacher. "Easterners!" he shouted. "No damn easterner could find his butt with both hands and a trained dog."
Preacher sopped out the juice in his plate with a hunk of panbread. Blackjack was a good cook and set out a mighty fine meal. "I ain't got no choice in the matter, Blackjack. 'Pears to me like the men I been knowin' all these years just ain't got the stomach for it ... the way they been runnin' and hidin'."
"Do you see me runnin' and hidin'?" Blackjack roared, rattling the leaves of the trees along the little creek.
"No," Preacher said carefully, ducking his head to hide his smile. "But you done said you wasn't gonna help me."
"Well ... mayhaps I got more important things to do."
"What? You ain't totin' no traps. You don't 'ppear to be huntin' gold. Maybe it's true what I heard about you?"
"That you was gonna take up farmin'."
Blackjack dropped his plate to the ground and his mouth fell open. "Farmin'?"
"Yep. That's what I heard," Preacher said sorrowfully. "Man that told me said: 'Poor ol' Blackjack. Done gone and lost his nerve.' That's what he said."
Blackjack was approximately the size of a grizzly bear, but very agile for his bulk. He jumped to his feet. "I ain't lost nothing'!" he shouted. "And, by God, you don't have to look no further for a man to hep you with them wagons. I'll show you, by God, a man who can get them wagons through."
"Why, Blackjack, that's plumb kindly of you. I knowed all them rumors wasn't true. But Ned, now, I reckon what I heard 'bout him was true."
"I ain't heared nothin' 'bout him." Blackjack sat back down and filled his coffee cup. "Hell, his camp ain't thirty miles from here. Over on the Badger. Are you tellin' me that Ned has lost his nerve?"
"Yep. That's what I heard."
"We can be there this time tomorrow if we leave now."
"I will be in five minutes."
After Ned Mason heard the rumor about his supposed loss of courage, he jumped up and down and roared and cussed. He uprooted a small tree and threw it into the creek. Then he picked up a boulder that would have herniated a lesser man and it followed the tree. He faced Preacher and Blackjack. "I just been a-waitin' for you to ax me to hep you with them wagons, Preacher." It was a lie and Preacher knew it. "I didn't know how to get in touch with you." Another lie. "And Charlie Burke is 'pposed to meet me here. He's overdue now. He'll come along."
"Don't you think Charlie's a little long in the tooth?" Preacher asked innocently.
"Long in the tooth?" Ned bellered.
"Yeah. This is gonna be a right arduous journey."
"What do arduous mean?"
"Difficult. This is gonna be a lot of work and Charlie ain't no young man, you know?"
That started Ned off on another round of hollerin' and cussin' and jumpin' around. He and Charlie had been friends for years. Ned finally settled down and glared at Preacher. "I double-dee-damn-darr you to say that to Charlie's face."
Preacher held up his hands and shook his head. "Don't get mad at me, now, ol' hoss. I'm just repeatin' what I heard is all, Ned."
"Well, there ain't none of it true. It's a damn lie. Come on." He kicked dirt over the fire and began grabbing up a few possessions, tossing them into a pile. "Let's go find Charlie. I know where he is."
Standing by Hammer, out of earshot of the others, Preacher grinned, stroked Hammer's nose, and whispered, "It's working' out better than I thought, Hammer. Time them boys figure out that I suckered them, it'll be too late to turn back. And they ain't even asked me how much the job pays." He laughed softly and Hammer rolled his eyes.
"If you all through talkin' to your horse," Blackjack hollered, "let's us go find Charlie. Time's a-wastin'."
Preacher swung into the saddle. "Lead on, Blackjack," he called, again hiding a smile. "I want to get there 'fore Charlie falls over from old age."CHAPTER 2
Charlie Burke was no spring chicken, but neither was he likely to fall over from old age anytime soon. Preacher just wanted to play the game as long as possible. He might be able to come up with several more if he kept this sham up long enough.
"Old age!" Charlie fumed at him. "If I didn't like you so much I'd flatten your snoot, you damn whippersnapper. Let's go lead these poor pilgrims 'crost the plains and the mountains."
Preacher grinned at him. "Don't get all worked up, Charlie. You liable to have a seizure, or something."
Charlie glared at the younger man, and then a slow grin creased his lips. "These others," he said, jerking a thumb toward Blackjack and Ned, "they don't know what you're up to. But I do, you connivin' horse thief."
"What's he up to?" Ned demanded. "What's he talkin' 'bout, Preacher?"
"I ain't got no idee," Preacher said innocently.
"Say!" Blackjack said. "How about 'ol Snake?"
"I thought he was dead!" Preacher blurted.
"Naw. He just looks dead. He's 'bout as old as dirt."
"You know where he is?"
"Shore. He's got him a cabin 'bout two days south of here."
"What's Preacher up to, Charlie."
"You boys try to figure it out," Charlie told the pair. "While we ride."
The old mountain man known as Snake was ancient. He could have been anywhere between seventy and ninety. Not even he knew. But what Snake did know was every trail between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean, and for his age, he was almighty spry and as tough as a boot. He still had enough of his teeth to gnaw with, and was no man to try to push around. Snake would either cut you or shoot you faster than a striking rattler. Hence, his name.
"I ain't never in my life been around a hundred and fifty females," Snake said. "And I ain't right sure I wanna be now. But you boys is friends, and a friend is a valuable thing. So count me in."
They were gone within the hour, heading east toward what would someday be called Kansas. Days later, they rode into a sea of waving grass and rolling hills and hostile Indians. And the men knew they were very likely to run into any number of tribes: Kiowa, Comanche, Pawnee, Osage, Shawnee, Arapaho, Wichita, and Kansa. None of whom would be terribly thrilled to see a hundred wagons come lumbering across their land. But a war party would be delighted to spot five men alone with no place to run.
"Been years since I been this far east," Charlie said, waiting for the coffee to boil over a hat-sized fire. "Ten years, at least."
"Longer than that for me," Snake said, gnawing on a piece of jerky. "I had me a runnin' battle with a war party of young bucks not too far from right where we's sittin'. That must have been, oh, 1820 or so. I think they was a raidin' party from down south that had just got whupped and they decided to take it out on me. They fought me pretty good and I still got a piece of arrowhead in my back from that skirmish. They chased me for miles, but my good horse carried me safe. I finally lost 'em up past the Little Beaver."
"What tribe?" Preacher asked.
"I never knowed. I gleamed right off that they didn't appear to be in no mood for genteel conversation. As a matter of fact, they was right unfriendly."
Blackjack said, "Preacher, there ain't no way the five of us is gonna be near enough. Have you give that any thought?"
"Practically ever hour on the hour," Preacher replied, dumping cold water into the coffeepot to settle the grounds. "I'm hopin' they'll be some ol' boys we know around the stagin' area that'll be willin' to throw in with us."
Excerpted from The First Mountain by Absaroka Ambush. Copyright © 1993 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.