THE SPIRIT OF COURAGE AND TRUE GRIT.
Preacher has agreed to escort Barnaby Cooper through Dakota Territory’s hills to establish a trading post. Accompanied by his friends Lorenzo and Tall Dog, the mountain man hopes they’ll be able to protect Cooper from Sioux warriors who don’t want any white man trespassing on their sacred grounds.
But the Sioux aren’t the only hostiles staking their claim in the region. Englishman Albion Shaw knows there’s gold in the hills. And with a band of cutthroat killers to do his bidding, Shaw has enough manpower and firepower to keep both trappers and tribes from settling on the land where he can build an empire.
But Shaw didn’t reckon on crossing a man like Preacher. A man who not only knows what it takes to survive in the wilderness, but a man who will fight for freedom and justice to his very last breath—and his very last bullet . . .
Release date: December 27, 2022
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 320
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William W. Johnstone
“I know it.” Preacher sopped up the dregs of his stew with his last biscuit and devoured it.
The seven blue-uniformed soldiers his friend Lorenzo referred to had already caught Preacher’s attention with their furtive glances and cold intensity. The tension had been building, and Preacher supposed he knew why that might be.
The soldiers sat around their table in the back corner of the Scalded Beaver Tavern. There were seven of them now, all wearing blue uniforms and all hard-looking men who looked like they’d been on both sides of the mountain. They drank heavily, but they’d been drinking before they came in. A couple of them had stumbled pretty good.
The time was just an hour or two past dark, and the meal was sitting well with Preacher. Or it had been. Most decent folk were back in their homes and only the night owls, gamblers, and those who had a taste for alcohol and soiled doves were out and about.
At another table on the other side of the tavern, a small group of men peered at a map and talked quietly among themselves. In their own way, the men seemed just as intense as the watchful soldiers. Preacher didn’t know if these men would be considered “decent,” but the men didn’t pay attention to much outside themselves.
One of them wore a tall, brown D’Orsay hat. Although the hat had been obviously cared for, the distinctive curved brim was wilted in a couple places and showed a few scuffed spots. The hat had been through some tough times. Preacher supposed the young man sitting under it had too because he had a knocked-about look that showed in his rough clothing and wind-burned face.
An air of desperation clung to the man and his group that wouldn’t be found in most folks in Fort Pierre.
The mountain man looked away from the group and focused on the soldiers. Their grumbling had gotten hotter and louder. Those men weren’t decent or quiet men. The scars and haphazard attention to their uniforms advertised that.
They were trouble. Or were soon to be trouble.
Preacher wouldn’t claim to be decent, but he could be a bad man for those who had wronged him or others he decided to protect. He didn’t hesitate when push came to shove, or when it was time to root, hog, or die. Tonight, he had no wish for aggravation.
He chased the last swallow of stew with a sip of beer and glanced over again at the group Lorenzo had called his attention to.
“They came in about an hour ago and have been watchin’ us ever since,” Preacher agreed. “I think they’re workin’ their nerve up to somethin’.”
Across the table from Preacher, Tall Dog cut another bite of his steak with one of the knives he carried. The young Crow warrior was a walking armory, and that was only one of the things Preacher respected about him.
Like Preacher and Tall Dog, Lorenzo wore buckskin pants and a shirt, all of them recently made and in good shape. He carried two pistols shoved through the sash at his waist. His Hawken rifle leaned against the wall close to hand just as Preacher’s did.
“We could go ask what they find so interesting about us,” Tall Dog suggested. “I would be happy to do that.”
He popped the bite of steak into his mouth and chewed like he had all the time in the world.
Preacher pushed his empty plate away. “No. I don’t want to go on the prod. The major over the army here doesn’t much cotton to folks disturbin’ the peace. We’ll lie low and give ’em leeway to figure out their own path. They can’t surprise us. If those varmints are dead-set on confrontin’ us, they’ll come back later when we ain’t expectin’ it.”
Lorenzo grinned mirthlessly. His skin was dark, but his hair was going gray these days, not black like it had been when Preacher had first met him years back. He was slimmer now than he’d been, wiry and tough. Time was creeping up on him and had worn away at any spare flesh he’d carried. Until he and Preacher had gotten reunited a couple months ago at a Crow camp on the Snake River, Lorenzo had been talking about seeking the easy life. Boredom had settled in pretty quickly and he’d wandered West again.
“Now that you know they’re lookin’ at us lookin’ at them,” Lorenzo said, “any chance of you not expectin’ them?”
Preacher grinned back. “Nope. But I’m not going to look at them too hard. I’d rather get this over with now if anything’s gonna come of it. Before they talk themselves out of it doing something now.”
“You afraid of scarin’ them off?”
“There are seven of them. Seems like if they were really feelin’ froggy, they’d have jumped by now. I’d rather see it comin’ than be lookin’ over my shoulder the whole time we’re here.”
Lorenzo pulled a face. “You’re bored, spoilin’ for a fight, an’ we only got in late last evenin’.”
“After all the excitement recoverin’ those rifles and fightin’ Diller and his men, the trip back to Fort Pierre was just a mosey. A fracas in this tavern might take the edge off of bein’ back in civilization.”
“All of these people constantly around has that effect on someone used to living in the mountains,” Tall Dog said. “Their presence is most . . . irritating. I find myself weary of it as well.”
Lorenzo shook his head. “My oh my, but the bloom fades quick, don’t it? An’ here you was all excited to see a big town.”
“I still want to see it,” the young Crow warrior said. “I have heard many stories about large places such as this one. I just do not find the experience as relaxing or as informative as I believed I would.”
“This ain’t even big.” Lorenzo snorted. “Fort Pierre don’t hold a candle to the likes of St. Louis. An’ if you really have a hankerin’ to see somethin’ of civilization an’ society, why you should get yourself on down to New Orleans. Now that there is a big city, but it’s got food the likes of which you ain’t ever seen. Take you weeks to sample it all, an’ there’s a lot more to see.”
“I think I shall have to limit my exposure to small portions,” Tall Dog admitted ruefully. “I did not get much sleep last night.”
“Them beds is soft,” Lorenzo observed. “I found mine mighty welcome after campin’ out along the trail gettin’ here.”
“The bed is too soft,” Tall Dog said. “I slept on the floor, but all the noise from the tavern on the first floor and out in the street kept me awake.”
The broad-shouldered young man was tall with dark blond hair shaved to the scalp on the sides and left long enough on top to make a braid that hung down his back. His heavily bronzed skin marked him as an Indian, and that made him an outcast in several places within the fort.
He wore a sword with a looped hilt sheathed in a scabbard down his back. A short dark blond beard covered his strong chin. He’d gotten the hair color and the steel-gray eyes from his Swedish father. His bronze skin and polite ways came from his Crow mother. She was soft-spoken and had insisted on good behavior from her only son. His Christian name was Bjorn Gunnarsson, but he generally introduced himself as Tall Dog, a Crow warrior, because that was more believable.
When Preacher had headed north from the Crow village beside the Snake River, Tall Dog had, with the blessing of his parents, accompanied the mountain man to return the lost rifles they’d taken back from the rogue Army captain Diller. The young Crow warrior had wanted to see more of the white man’s world, though his father Olaf had promised him the visit would be disenchanting because he’d had enough of it himself.
Still, a young man tended to wander. Preacher knew that for a fact. He’d left home early himself because the mountains had captured his heart and imagination with their mystery and majesty. He’d never regretted going into the wilderness.
“If a bed is troublin’ you,” Lorenzo declared, “I can’t promise you’re gonna get on much better with anythin’ else you’re gonna find here.”
Tall Dog considered his empty plate. “The food is good.”
“Are you certain?”
The Crow warrior regarded Lorenzo suspiciously before answering. “I am.”
“I only ask ’cause it took you two plates’ worth to make up your mind. From the way you wolfed it down, I figured you never bothered to taste any of it.”
“Well,” Tall Dog said, “from my continued observation, which was necessary, I now know that the food here is both good and plentiful.”
Lorenzo shot a sour look at Preacher, who laughed aloud because the older man knew he’d been one-upped.
“Why don’t you make yourself useful an’ get us another round of beers,” Lorenzo suggested to Preacher.
“I can do that,” Preacher replied. “Need to stretch my legs anyway.”
“I’ll watch your rifle.”
Preacher stood and adjusted the gun belt he wore. Even though he’d worn it every day for a few months, it was still a new thing to him. Normally he’d carried his flintlock pistols in a sash at his back. He still carried those there, but the new Colt Paterson revolvers he’d been given by the Texas Rangers rode in holsters on his hips. Those weapons had caught the eye of every man in the fort who knew armament. The repeating pistols were still new out West.
Tall and powerful from years spent living in the mountains and fighting Blackfeet Indians and outlaws, Preacher drew the attention of the men sitting around the Scalded Beaver. Some of them he’d met in passing while doing business at the fort. Others knew him by suspicion and reputation. He had a fresh haircut and shave, courtesy of the local barber, and his mustache was in fine fettle. With winter coming, he’d grow out his beard again soon, but for now being clean-shaven suited him.
The stout, red-bearded bartender was mostly bald on top. What was left of his hair was oiled into place and looked like a dead jellyfish spread out over his pink scalp. He dressed neat, though, with an apron and gartered sleeves. He spoke with a Gaelic lilt.
“You’ll be having another three beers?” the bartender asked. “Or would you be wishing for something a little more powerful?”
“The beer’s good. A man can’t always get good beer.”
“Beer it is, then.”
Preacher glanced at the mirror on the wall behind the counter as the bartender stepped over to the tapped beer keg sitting on the long shelf beneath the mirror.
Three of the soldiers got up from the group at the back of the tavern and approached the bar through the scattered tables. One of the soldiers wore a fringed yellow epaulette on his left shoulder that marked him as a subaltern, probably a lieutenant.
“You got company coming, mate,” the bartender said softly so his voice didn’t carry any farther than Preacher.
“I see them,” the mountain man replied. “No idea what they want.”
Warm excitement filled him. Since the soldiers had come in, he’d weathered the threat they had presented with their covert, at first, attentions, then their downright brash brassiness.
“You know the leftenant?” the bartender asked.
“That’s Judd Finlay.” The bartender placed a full glass of beer down and reached for another glass. “He can be a bad bloke.”
Preacher nodded. “Thanks for the warnin’.”
The lieutenant was broad and heavy-faced with high cheekbones. His nose sat askew from its proper position. His brown hair was combed back from his high forehead, but a few unruly strands hung down over his bushy brows. His mouth looked small on that wide expanse of face, only a little broader than his nose. Dark brown whiskers covered his square chin. He was about Preacher’s age.
The bartender filled the third glass. “He’s a southpaw. Catches folks off guard with that. Hits hard enough most opponents don’t recover.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
The bartender placed the three glasses of beer in front of Preacher. The mountain man dropped enough coins on the counter to cover the beer, and added a nice tip.
“Thanks, mate.” The bartender disappeared the coins and turned to Finlay and his two cohorts with a practiced smile that revealed nothing of the conversation he’d had with Preacher. “Something I can get for you, Leftenant?”
“Shot of whiskey,” Finlay growled. He tucked into the bar to Preacher’s left only inches away. The man smelled like a brewery. “The good stuff.”
“All right then.” The bartender turned back to the neat rows of bottles. “Coming right up. Shots for your mates, too?”
Preacher picked up the three glasses of beer. Lorenzo and Tall Dog watched him from their table. The four soldiers in the back moved toward the center of the tavern.
“Them, too,” Finlay agreed and nodded to the men. He turned and focused his dark green eyes on Preacher. “Say, ain’t you the one they call Preacher?”
Preacher returned Finlay’s gaze full measure. “I am.”
Finlay ran a finger alongside his crooked nose. “Story goes that you came in talkin’ ill of Captain Diller.”
“You’re talkin’ about the same Captain Diller who robbed Pierre Chouteau’s shipment of rifles a few months ago,” Preacher said evenly and loud enough to be heard around the tavern, “and blamed that robbery on Blackfeet warriors? That the varmint you’re talkin’ about?”
Everyone in the tavern stilled. Conversations stopped. Glasses quietly returned to tabletops. The man in the D’Orsay hat turned to watch with bright interest.
Finlay’s face suffused with blood and he opened his mouth.
Before the man could speak, Preacher continued. Maybe he was on the prod. A little.
“You’re askin’ about the same Captain Diller who also murdered the Army’s replacement for the major in command of the soldiers here? And all the soldiers who rode with him? Is that the Diller you’re talkin’ about?”
Finlay’s eyes narrowed. “They say you killed him.”
“I did. Shot that varmint right between the eyes while he was drawin’ down on me. He knew what he was gettin’ into.”
“He was my friend.”
“I gave Diller a Christian burial out there in Colter’s Hell. He didn’t deserve it, but I try not to leave a man without buryin’ him. Especially if I killed him. I marked the grave so he’ll be easy enough to find if you’re of a mind to visit and pay your respects.”
“If you killed him, you backshot him!” Finlay roared. “Ain’t no other way you could take Diller head-on! An’ then you spun that story about rescuin’ Chouteau’s rifles just so you could lay your own claim to part of them! I heard all about that! You’re a liar an’ a thief!”
Preacher spoke coldly, the only warning he was willing to give. “Maybe you need to learn to pick your friends better.”
Finlay spun and fired his big left hand straight off his shoulder at Preacher’s face. The lieutenant masked the blow with his body till the last minute. If Preacher hadn’t been forewarned by the bartender and his own observation of the soldiers’ heightened interest in him and his friends, he might have gotten caught looking.
The mountain man swayed back just enough to be out of range of his opponent’s fist, then he set the three beer glasses on the bar. He spun to face Finlay.
“Hey!” the bartender yelled. He reached below the counter and came up with a wooden club. “No fighting in here! Get out of my—!”
Finlay threw another left-handed punch. Preacher caught the blow on his right forearm and turned it aside. The impact partially numbed his arm. The lieutenant was strong as a mule.
Moving quickly because both of Finlay’s cohorts closed in, and one of them had somehow gotten the bartender’s club, Preacher took a half-step forward and jabbed Finlay in the face with his left hand hard enough to drive the man back, then pummeled him with a roundhouse right that caught him on the jaw and sent him stumbling backward in a rush.
The man behind Finlay attempted to catch the lieutenant and became tangled with him.
The third man circled them. Lantern light glinted dully off the brass knuckles on his fists as he stepped toward Preacher. Before the man’s lead foot planted solidly on the sawdust-strewn and beer-stained floor, Preacher kicked the man’s ankle and knocked him off balance. As the man tried to recover his stance, the mountain man caught his opponent’s left wrist in one hand and gripped the man’s elbow in the other. When the man tried to yank free, Preacher used the motion to violently crank the captured hand down and back. He drew his hand from the man’s elbow, then drove it back down as hard as he could.
Something snapped in the man’s elbow or shoulder, possibly both, and he squalled in pain. He dropped to the floor and cradled his injured arm.
Preacher didn’t care. He’d intended to break at least one of those joints to reduce the odds and let the brawlers know how far he was willing to go. Finlay and his men outnumbered Preacher and his companions, and this wasn’t just a barroom brawl. The surprise attack and the brass knuckles proved that.
Beyond the fallen man, Lorenzo and Tall Dog squared off against the other four soldiers. Patrons of the Scalded Beaver, including the man in the D’Orsay hat and his friends, were vacating the premises, but several of them crowded the windows to peer inside. They were backlit by the scattered lanterns that kept the night at bay along the cross streets where the tavern sat.
“Don’t kill them unless you have to!” Preacher bellowed.
He wasn’t wishful for any trouble with the current Army major or Pierre Chouteau. Fighting was one thing, but killing a man would bring more problems. He’d only intended a couple days of respite before returning to the mountains he loved. Profits in the fur trade were growing thin, and it was too late in the season to find a wagon train to guide. Preacher would make do living off the land for the winter.
Returning the captured rifles after claiming two dozen of them as his own hadn’t left Preacher in any good graces with Pierre Chouteau, but it had given him a small poke after selling those rifles. Losing those weapons had deeply cut into the French trader’s profit margin.
Preacher turned his attention to Finlay and the other soldier as they closed on him. He considered drawing one of the Colt Patersons and putting an end to the fracas. He might have done it if he weren’t sure he would have had to kill one or both the men facing him to stop them. They were just mean-drunk enough to be stupid and stubborn.
Then again, if they’d tried to ambush Preacher in an alley, he’d have killed them straight off.
Finlay and the other soldier wore pistols and knives but so far hadn’t seemed inclined to go for them. Evidently, they had been intent on just delivering a beating.
Growling an oath through his bloody lips, Finlay grabbed a chair and swung it at Preacher. The mountain man stepped toward his opponent to use him as a shield against the other man carrying the club, took the brunt of the chair across the thick muscles of his back, and slammed his right fist into Finlay’s face.
The big lieutenant dropped the pieces of the broken chair and thudded to his knees with glazed eyes. Slowly, Finlay toppled onto his face and didn’t move.
The soldier with the club swung over Finlay, but Preacher ducked, avoided most of the blow, and caught a glancing blow on his left cheek and temple. Even though he was a little dazed, he came up with a throat punch that temporarily shut off the man’s wind.
Panicked because he suddenly couldn’t breathe, the soldier stumbled back with both his hands wrapped protectively around his neck. His eyes were wide with fear.
Preacher grabbed the man by the hair, yanked him to the side, and kicked his feet out from under him.
“You’re going to be all right,” the mountain man told his opponent lying on the floor. “If you stay down.”
The man rolled over onto his back and struggled to get his wind back. He made no effort to get up.
Tall Dog stood with folded arms in the middle of three unconscious men, two of whom had, at first glance, at least one broken limb. At six and a half feet tall, the Crow warrior towered over his vanquished foes.
Lorenzo struggled with one overweight soldier who was big as a bear and fought like a banshee. Despite the fat man’s struggles, Lorenzo kept him corralled against the wall beside the tavern entrance. Lorenzo cursed like a mule skinner and sounded frustrated to boot as he huffed and puffed and swung his knobby fists.
The fat man hit Lorenzo in the ribs with a hard right that took the air out of the smaller man. Lorenzo responded with two hooks, a left and a right, that smashed into the soldier’s face and caused his head to thump against the wall.
Preacher stood beside Tall Dog. “You ask him if he needs help?”
“I did. He told me he did not require assistance.”
Preacher folded his arms over his chest and waited.
Lorenzo grabbed the man’s ears and hammered his opponent’s massive head against the wall with the stubborn intensity of a woodpecker working a new tree.
Preacher raised his voice over the thudding. “Lorenzo? You need a hand?”
“No, I don’t need no help!” Lorenzo yelled and wheezed for breath. “I ain’t some two-bit, wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn! This man is just too stupid an’ onery to know when he’s outhorsed!”
“You might need to blow for a minute,” Preacher suggested.
“I’m fine,” Lorenzo growled. “Leave me be. I’ve almost got him whupped.”
“I think the man is mostly unconscious,” Tall Dog said.
Looking at the ineffectual way the soldier swung his arms, Preacher agreed. “Hey, Lorenzo, just step back a minute.”
Reluctantly, panting, Lorenzo stepped back with his balled fists in front of him. His opponent stood for a moment and jerked his arms. He never blinked. Then, slowly, he fell forward to the floor with a massive, meaty thump and remained still.
Lorenzo bent over and rested his hands on his knees. He drew in deep breaths.
“Told you I had him,” Lorenzo said.
“You did,” Preacher agreed.
“That’s a big ol’ boy,” Lorenzo gasped and glanced at Tall Dog. “Wasn’t no pantywaist like them you three were fighting.” He shifted his gaze to Preacher. “Or them three you fought.”
“I reckon not,” Preacher replied agreeably. “You did fight the biggest one.”
“I hope to shout,” Lorenzo agreed.
“Maybe we should get out of here while the gettin’s good,” Preacher suggested.
“Lemme find my hat.”
Movement out in front of the tavern caught Preacher’s eye. Blue Army uniforms cut through the crowd and headed for the tavern.
“Might not get out of here after all,” Preacher said and nodded toward the window.
Lorenzo glanced up and frowned. “Damnation.” He bent down again and retrieved his hat. “You wouldn’t think polecats like these would have friends.” He shrugged and took a breath. “Takes all kinds, I suppose.”
The front door banged open and a dozen soldiers ran into the room with their rifles raised.
Lorenzo waved a hand at them. “Preacher, you and Tall Dog go ahead an’ dig in. When I catch my breath, I’ll be along. Save me a few.”
The soldiers leveled their rifles at Finlay and his men lying scattered on the floor. A few of those rifles covered Preacher and his companions.
A whip-smart young officer walked into the bar and stood in front of his troops. One of his gloved hands rested on the hilt of his military saber. A neatly trimmed blond mustache covered his upper lip. His blue eyes were hard.
“This fracas is at an end,” the officer declared in a clear voice. “I am Lieutenant Kraft. I’m here to sort this mess out. Any continued hostilities on your part will result in you getting shot.”
“Well,” Lorenzo said like he was disappointed, “that plumb puts an end to things, don’t it?”
“I won’t be taking you into custody, sir,” Lieutenant Kraft told Preacher. “I was informed by the bartender, Mr. Ivers, that Lieutenant Finlay and his men started this brawl.”
“They did,” Preacher agreed.
He stood with the young officer at the front of the tavern. The turn of events surprised him. He’d expected to be arrested on general principle for disturbing the peace. It was no secret that Pierre Chouteau wasn’t happy with him, and the Frenchman owned the fort. The Army was allowed to base there at his indulgence.
Of course, that favor to the Army was mutually beneficial and worked both ways. In exchange for their base of operations in the territory, the soldiers helped keep the peace in the fort and prevented rampant thievery, and they kept the Blackfeet and other hostile Indians at bay for wagon trains that passed through on their way to Oregon.
“An’ we’d finished the fight by the time you arrived,” Lorenzo declared.
He would have sounded more fierce had he not been leaning against the wall for support, though he tried to act like he didn’t need it. He blotted a napkin at the blood trickling through the gray scruff on his chin.
“Saved you boys the trouble of wranglin’ with them,” Lorenzo went on. “Some of your young whippersnappers there, seein’ as how they don’t look too experienced, might have gotten themselves hurt in a little set-to like the one that was fought here. You could say we saved ’em from that.”
“Yes, of course,” Kraft said. He adjusted his saber hilt with authority and didn’t look terribly impressed with Lorenzo’s claim. “I’m sure Major Crenshaw will extend to you his appreciation for that service. Since learning of Captain Diller’s involvement in the robbery of Mr. Chouteau’s rifles, the major has held Lieutenant Finlay in disfavor. Finlay’s actions with Diller prior to this latest debacle was suspicious at best, and criminal in my mind.”
“The major might have extended his appreciation while Chouteau was squawkin’ at us this mornin’,” Preacher said sourly. The way he’d gotten dressed down after actually doing the trader a good turn had rankled him.
Kraft frowned slightly. “I understand, but Mr. Chouteau’s disappointment over the loss of those rifles is understandable.”
“Not so understandable that Major Crenshaw gave up the percentage of those rifles that the Department of War had agreed on for the transportation of those rifles,” Preacher pointed out. “He kept his fair share same as I did.”
“That was not the major’s decision to make. He was under the direct order of Joel Roberts Poinsett, the Secretary of War, to take those rifles as was agreed. The Army acted in good faith regarding delivery of those rifles, and Major Roger Voight gave his life while protecting them. The major only assumed ownership of that which was promised in good faith.”
“I reckon Chouteau was a mite put out since it was the Army who caused those rifles to go missin’ in the first place,” Preacher said. He decided maybe he wasn’t done being cantankerous for the evening.
Kraft reddened slightly. “Captain Diller was not working on behalf of. . .
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