There are some things in this world that can't be stopped. Like progress, a moving train, and the American Dream. When the bigwigs in Washington decide to build a transcontinental railroad to the West Coast, they need a man who's just as unstoppable to clear a path through Mexican territory. That man is Jamie MacCallister. Jamie knows it's a tough job. The territory is overrun with Apaches. The Apaches are gunning for a fight. And the first patrol sent in by the President has already been ambushed, kidnapped, and most likely killed. Jamie knows he can't take on the whole Apache nation by himself. He needs help. He needs back-up.
He needs a non-stop force of mountain-man fury who goes by the name of Preacher . . .
Release date: June 30, 2020
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Print pages: 400
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They Came to Kill
William W. Johnstone
The sweating men, pale under their sunburns, were about to die, and they knew it. They crouched in a shallow gully that ran along a sharp sandstone rise too steep to climb. Twenty men now, because two of their number lay out there some thirty yards in front of the gully, their corpses baking in the blistering midday sun. Numerous arrows stuck up from the backs of their blue uniform jackets. They had been the slowest of foot when it came to running for cover, and they had paid the price.
Lieutenant Damon Charlton sat with his back against the side of the gully and worked the cork out of the neck of his canteen. He tipped his head back and took a long swallow of the tepid water. No point in worrying about saving it now.
“Lieutenant, w-what are we gonna do?” one of the men asked.
Charlton thought his name was Weatherbee, Wellington, something like that.
What are we going to do, Private Weatherbee or Wellington or whatever in bloody blue blazes your name is? We’re going to die, that’s what we’re going to do. Quickly and relatively painlessly if we’re fortunate. Screaming in agony if we aren’t.
But of course he couldn’t say that, so Charlton responded, “This is a good defensive position, Private. We’ll continue to hold it until the hostiles tire of this and depart.”
“But . . . but our horses, sir. Our horses ran away. The Apaches must have ’em by now. We’re at least eighty miles from El Paso. We’ll never make it back there on foot.”
Knowing what he did of the Apaches, Charlton thought it likely most of those army horses would wind up in the savages’ stewpots. They were a nomadic people but didn’t travel much by horseback. He had been told by an old-timer that the Apaches trusted their own legs not to give out more than they trusted those of horses. They could run all day when they needed to.
Trying to keep his voice level and calm, the lieutenant said, “We’ll deal with that when the time comes, Private. Right now, the most important thing is to hold our position, as I said.”
He heard grumbling along the line and knew some of the men were angry with him. To their way of thinking, he had led them into this deathtrap, and they weren’t wrong.
But he’d had no choice. His orders had been to take this patrol into the wasteland west of the western tip of Texas, into what had been the Mexican territory of Nuevo Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo a couple of years earlier, following the end of yet another war.
Officially it was New Mexico Territory, owned and controlled by the United States, although the boundaries were fuzzy. Some Texans thought it should be part of that state. The Mexicans still claimed territory in the southern part of the region. But those were just words in documents and lines on maps that could not be pointed to out where the sun beat down and rattlesnakes and red savages lurked behind every rock.
The politicians in Washington, Mexico City, and Austin squabbled over those words and map lines, while soldiers rode out into the harsh landscape to meet death.
Charlton corked the canteen. He had no idea how long the Apaches would take in getting around to killing all of them. He supposed he might have time to get thirsty again later, so he might as well save some of the water after all.
He heard a low, monotonous sound and realized that one of the men was praying. He almost snapped then, almost shouted at the man that prayer wasn’t going to do any good, that there was no one to hear it in this desolation, but Charlton swallowed the words at the last second. Losing his temper wouldn’t do any real harm—after all, their situation couldn’t get any worse, could it?—but it wouldn’t accomplish any good, either. So why waste his breath?
He leaned his head back against the sandstone and closed his eyes. The sun was so bright that didn’t make much difference, but his eyelids cut the glare a little. As soon as he did that, however, the same images played out in his mind’s eye.
The patrol had stopped to rest the horses, when suddenly arrows began to come seemingly out of nowhere. Several of them struck horses and the animals went down screaming. Charlton had spotted the gully and recognized it as cover, so he ran toward it, knowing that they didn’t have time to mount up. Besides, where would they go? It seemed like the hostiles were everywhere around them, judging by the way so many arrows filled the air, coming from every direction . . .
Even though he hadn’t shouted any orders, the rest of the men had streamed after him and followed his example in leaping into the gully, all except the two who didn’t make it and lay there feathered with arrows. Shots blasted, the echoes rolling across the arid landscape, although the men had fired blindly, unable to contain the reaction to being attacked by invisible foes. The gunfire died away as the arrows stopped coming . . .
It seemed as if hours had passed since then, although Charlton knew that in reality it was more like half an hour. He didn’t see any reason to pull out his pocket watch and check the time. It hadn’t taken him long to understand what a bad fix they were in. The horses that hadn’t been killed in the ambush had run off, spooked by the gunfire and the smell of blood. What kind of army mounts were those, he had asked himself bitterly. On foot, unable to venture out from the scant cover, all the patrol could do was wait. Maybe . . . maybe there would be a miracle. Maybe the Apaches would tire of this standoff and leave. Maybe another patrol would come along. Maybe—
With a harsh, incoherent yell, one of the soldiers suddenly scrambled up out of the gully and sprinted across the flats. Another man cried, “Come back here, you fool!”
The running man jerked his head around and called over his shoulder, “I’ll get the horse—”
An ugly, guttural sound interrupted that declaration of vain hope as an arrow skewered the man’s neck from right to left. He stumbled, twisted, turned all the way around so he was facing back toward the gully. Crouched there, the men saw the torrent of blood that flooded from the soldier’s open mouth. Another arrow struck him from behind and drove all the way through his body so the flint head erupted from his chest.
That was wasteful. The neck wound was already fatal. That wild thought careened through Lieutenant Damon Charlton’s mind, then he told himself it didn’t matter. No doubt the Apaches would retrieve all their arrows once every member of the patrol was dead—which might not be much longer.
Shrill, yipping war cries came from left and right. The Apaches who had crawled up, unseen, until they were within a few yards of the gully leaped up and charged. Brandishing knives, they dived into the gully.
Earlier, Charlton had taken his Colt Dragoon revolver from its holster and placed it on the ground beside him so it would be handy. That saved him the few seconds it would have taken to withdraw the weapon from the flapped holster. He dropped the canteen, snatched up the Dragoon, and eared back the hammer. With the blood thundering through his veins, he didn’t even notice the Dragoon’s cumbersome weight as he aimed it at the closest Apache and pulled the trigger.
The cap-and-ball’s heavy boom hammered Charlton’s ears. Powder smoke gushed from the muzzle, and for a second he couldn’t see the charging Indian. Then the view cleared enough for him to spot the Apache, stumbling as blood welled from the hole in the middle of his chest. The man’s momentum carried him a couple more steps before he pitched forward and landed facedown on the very lip of the gully. His arm hung over the edge. His hand still clutched the knife he’d intended to bury in Charlton’s flesh, but as the lieutenant watched, the man’s nerves stopped working, the muscles relaxed, and the knife slipped from the Apache’s grip, dropping to the sandy ground.
All that happened in a heartbeat. Charlton cocked the Dragoon again as he shifted his aim. Another Apache came in from the left. Charlton fired. He was a little high this time. Instead of striking the Indian in the chest, the .44 round blew away a fist-sized chunk of his head. That dead man landed on the ground beside the first Apache Charlton had killed.
Elsewhere in the gully, several soldiers had managed to fire their muskets, but the weapons were unwieldy and not well suited for close work. They were actually better as clubs when it came to hand-to-hand fighting so the men used them that way as they battled frantically for their lives. A few of the Apaches went down with shattered skulls.
But there were too many of the savages. They plunged their knives into the soldiers again and again. Men screamed as blood darkened their already dark blue uniforms even more. Some had their throats cut, causing crimson fountains to geyser out from the gaping wounds. The gruesome melee spread along the gully.
Lieutenant Charlton twisted to his right. A few feet away, one of the Indians had hold of a soldier’s throat with his left hand while he used the knife in his right to stab the luckless trooper in the chest. The Apache was enjoying this brutal murder too much. He didn’t notice Charlton aiming at him until it was too late. The Apache turned his head toward the lieutenant just in time to receive the bullet through his open, yelling mouth. It threw him backward in a lifeless sprawl.
Instinct turned Charlton back to the left. The Dragoon roared again, and a savage doubled over as the slug punched deep into his guts.
The revolver’s cylinder held two more rounds. Charlton had an extra, loaded cylinder in his pocket, but he knew he would never have time to switch them out. He started to tremble with the knowledge of his impending death. But he still had those two rounds, he reminded himself. It took two hands to control the weapon, but he cocked and lifted the Dragoon and shot another savage in the chest. The man flew backward with arms and legs flailing.
Five shots, five dead hostiles, Charlton thought. He probably would have gotten a medal for this, if anyone had ever known about it. If he hadn’t been destined to have his bones bleach in the pitiless sun, his fate unknown and therefore not mourned.
The Apaches were notorious for torturing captives, he reminded himself. He had one round left in the Dragoon, and the time had come for him to put it to its best use.
He pressed the muzzle against his throat, under his chin. His thumb fumbled for the hammer.
Something crashed into him from the right, and the Dragoon flew out of his hand. As he lay on his side, he cried out and reached for the revolver where it landed on the ground a few feet away, but strong hands pulled him away and rolled him onto his back. A dark shape loomed over him, blotting out the sun. The man drove a knee into Charlton’s belly, sickening him and pinning him to the ground. His pulse boomed inside his head like a drum as he watched the Apache lift a knife above his head. The weapon hung there for a second, poised for a killing stroke.
In that heartbeat, which seemed to stretch out for an eternity, Charlton tasted the dirt in his mouth, felt its gritty sting in his eyes. He heard the shrieks of his men as they were slaughtered. He saw the sun reflect off the knife blade, took note of the brass hilt, the bit of bone handle showing where the Apache’s sinewy fingers weren’t wrapped around it, the round brass pommel on the end.
That wasn’t a crude knife fashioned by some primitive, he thought. It was a white man’s blade, doubtless taken from some corpse. And it was going to claim another life.
Instead, the Apache suddenly reversed the knife as he brought it down, and the brass pommel struck Lieutenant Damon Charlton between the eyes rather than the blade sheathing itself in his heart. The impact was like an explosion in Charlton’s brain, a burst of red that flared brighter than the sun before fading quickly into an all-encompassing black.
MacCallister’s Valley, Colorado, 1852
Jamie Ian MacCallister brought the Sharps rifle smoothly to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The rifle’s thunderous boom blended with the big cat’s scream as it launched itself toward Jamie from the rocky knob above him.
The heavy-caliber bullet caught the mountain lion in the chest, but even though it was a killing shot, it wasn’t enough to deflect the beast’s flight. Jamie was a big man, but not big enough to withstand the impact of well over a hundred pounds of killer cat. The hurtling body crashed into Jamie and knocked him backward off the ledge.
Claws ripped through Jamie’s sheepskin coat and raked his flesh. Dying jaws snapped together well short of his throat, instead of ripping it out as the mountain lion had intended. As man and cat both tumbled down the rocky slope, Jamie got his hands against the beast’s bloody chest and shoved it away from him. He rolled a few more yards before he was able to grab hold of something and stop his out-of-control plunge.
It was a good thing he did. Less than ten feet away, a cliff dropped off sheer. The mountain lion’s body slid over the brink and plummeted a hundred feet to crash through the pine branches below.
Breathing a little hard, Jamie clung to the rock he had grabbed, looked around for a second handhold, and got a grip on another outcropping. The slope was steep, but once he caught his breath, he climbed it without much trouble, heading up toward the ledge he’d been moving along when the big cat jumped him. He ignored the burning from the scratches the claws had left on his broad, powerful chest.
His Sharps had caught on the rough ground not far from where he’d dropped it when the mountain lion knocked him off his feet. He was glad to see that. He wouldn’t have to climb all the way around to that lower level to retrieve it, as he would have if it had gone over the cliff. A fall from that height might well have damaged the rifle beyond repair, too.
Would have damaged him beyond repair, for sure, he thought with a grim chuckle.
Then he sobered. He’d caught only a glimpse of the mountain lion as it dived at him, but he had seen that it was a magnificent creature and a part of him regretted having to kill it. It never would have attacked a human being if it hadn’t been hungry from the hard winter not long past, the same sort of hunger that had led it to go after the herd of cattle Jamie had been building up for several years. He had himself a good ranch in what had come to be called MacCallister’s Valley, and he wasn’t going to let anybody—man or beast—take it away from him.
Jamie spotted his broad-brimmed, brown felt hat and was glad he hadn’t lost it, either. He gathered up the rifle and the hat and clambered the rest of the way to the ledge. As he stepped onto it, he looked up at the knob where the big cat had been lying in wait. He’d been tracking the mountain lion all day, and he knew the cat had been tracking him, too. But the deadly competition had come to its end.
Jamie slapped the hat against a buckskin-clad thigh and put it on. He reloaded the Sharps, sliding one of the long .52 caliber cartridges into the breech, then checked to make sure the Walker Colt was still in its holster on his right hip and hadn’t fallen out during his tumble. The revolver was there.
With the important things taken care of, he pulled his coat aside and lifted the buckskin shirt to take a look at the wounds on his chest. There were four scratches, each a few inches long. They were still bleeding, but not much. Jamie made a face, but the grimace was inspired more by the damage done to a perfectly good shirt than by the wounds themselves. Scars were scattered all over his tall, muscular body. A few more added to their number didn’t matter.
He took a bandanna from his pocket, pressed it over the claw marks, and held it in place with his right arm as he turned and started making his way back down the mountainside. To his left, MacCallister’s Valley opened in a broad, impressive sweep. The slopes of the surrounding snowcapped mountains were dark with evergreens. Down in the valley, the snow was gone and lush grass was starting to rise. Wildflowers dotted the meadows. It was the sort of view to take a man’s breath away, and it still affected Jamie that way, although he and Kate had been settled on their ranch for a good number of years.
Raised a good number of kids, too. All were grown and out on their own except for the youngest, Falcon, and despite barely being a teenager, he already had the wanderlust in his eyes. Jamie knew that because he had seen it in all the others as they started to come of age. If anything, it was even stronger in Falcon, and he was such a strapping youth that Jamie knew he and Kate wouldn’t be able to hold on to the boy for much longer.
Jamie had set out from the ranch this morning on horseback and picked up the cat’s trail at the last place it had attacked the herd. Not surprisingly, that trail led to the high country, and eventually Jamie had left the horse behind and continued his tracking on foot.
It took him the better part of an hour to reach the spot where he had left his mount. The horse was still there and bobbed his head up and down as he let out a whicker of greeting when Jamie stepped close. Then it shied away as it caught the scent of the big cat or the blood from Jamie’s wounds, or both.
“Take it easy there, old hoss,” Jamie said. “Nothing to worry about. That critter’s dead, I’m all right, and we’re going home.”
He slid the Sharps back into its saddle scabbard, untied the reins from the sapling he’d knotted them around, and swung up into leather. He wanted to be home by dark. At this time of year, it could still get mighty cold at night.
By late afternoon, he came in sight of the sprawling log and stone ranch house and the several outbuildings and corrals around it. He also saw something that made his eyes narrow under the bushy, graying brows. Four horses he didn’t recognize were tied up at the hitch rail in front of the house.
The presence of strangers didn’t necessarily mean trouble, of course, but even so, Jamie reached down and slid the Walker Colt up and down slightly in its holster, just to make sure it moved freely.
Everything looked peaceful. He drew up alongside the horses and saw the US brand on their left shoulders. Those were army mounts, he realized, increasing his puzzlement. He didn’t know of any reason why the army would be paying him a visit.
The front door opened and Falcon came out while Jamie was dismounting. Despite his young age, Falcon was almost as tall as his father, and the width of his shoulders indicated that they might well be as wide as Jamie’s someday. He had an unruly thatch of blond hair.
A grin spread across his face. “Soldiers inside lookin’ for you, Pa.”
“I can see that,” Jamie responded as he leaned his head toward the horses. “What do they want?”
“They ain’t sayin’.”
“Your ma would correct you if she was out here. They aren’t saying.”
“That’s what I just told you,” Falcon said. “Anyway, Ma’s set ’em down in the parlor and given ’em coffee and insisted that they stay for supper. They want to talk to you, so I reckon you’ll soon find out what they’re after.”
Jamie handed the reins to his son. “Here. Put this horse up for me.”
“Aw, I want to go in with you and find out what this is all about.”
“You’ll find out soon enough, if it’s any of your business. Now take the horse on to the barn, rub him down, and give him some grain.”
“All right.” Falcon started to turn away but paused to look over his shoulder and ask, “What about that mountain lion? I almost plumb forgot to ask about that.”
“He won’t bother our herd anymore.”
Falcon grinned, clearly proud of his father. “I knew you’d get him.”
Jamie didn’t mention how close the big cat had come to getting him.
“One more thing, Pa,” Falcon called as Jamie started into the house. “One of those fellas isn’t a soldier. At least, he ain’t dressed like one.”
Jamie didn’t bother correcting his son’s language this time. He was too interested in satisfying his own curiosity about the visitors.
After all the years of being married to him, Kate knew his step, of course. When he went into the house, she called from the parlor, “In here, Jamie.”
Jamie took off his hat and coat and hung them on a hook. As he moved into the parlor doorway, his keen-eyed gaze quickly took in the four visitors. Two of them, both in uniform, sat on a divan. A colonel and a major, he noted, so whatever this was, the army was taking it seriously.
Another soldier, a lieutenant who was probably an aide to the other officers, was in a straight-backed chair to the side, while a gray-haired, middle-aged man in a brown tweed suit occupied an armchair near the fireplace. His face was instantly familiar to Jamie, although the name didn’t want to come right away.
Kate was in a rocking chair she favored, but she stood up quickly with a look of concern on her beautiful face when she laid eyes on Jamie. He knew she had spotted the rips in his shirt and the bloodstains around them.
“Jamie,” she said as she took a step toward him. As always, she nearly took his breath away with her beauty, even with that worried expression on her face. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah, I just tangled a little with that big cat I went looking for. It’s nothing to worry about.”
“Nothing to . . . Let me see.” Without waiting for his permission, she lifted his shirt, which he found rather uncomfortable with strangers in the room. “Why, that bandanna is so bloody it’s stuck to the wounds! You come into the kitchen. That needs tending to, right now.”
“But Kate,” he said with a vague wave toward the four men, “we’ve got company.”
“Their business can wait,” she said crisply. “Can’t it, gentlemen?”
The familiar-looking civilian smiled and said, “Certainly it can, Mrs. MacCallister.” To Jamie, he went on. “Now that I’ve met your wife, Jamie, after hearing so much about her, I’d advise you not to argue with her.”
The man’s voice prodded Jamie’s memory, and a name popped into his head. “Owen! Owen Charlton.”
“That’s right. I didn’t know if you’d remember me or not. But you go on with Mrs. MacCallister. It’s not as if the fate of the entire nation depends on the errand that brought us here, or anything like that.”
One of the soldiers said, “Actually, sir—”
Owen Charlton stopped him with a curt gesture, then smiled and nodded again at Jamie, who allowed Kate to lead him out of the parlor.
As they went out to the kitchen, he couldn’t help but think of Owen Charlton’s comment about the errand that had brought them here and the fate of the nation.
Jamie had an unsettling hunch that despite what Charlton said, maybe those two things were related.
Kate sat him down at the big table in the kitchen, dipped a cloth in a basin of water, and got to work soaking the bandanna loose from the bloody wounds. “I thought you were going to find that mountain lion and shoot it. From a distance.”
“Well, that was the plan,” Jamie responded dryly, “but the cat had ideas of its own. We don’t have to worry about him going after our stock anymore. I came out on top in that fight.”
“From the looks of these claw marks, the mountain lion was on top, at least for a while.”
Jamie changed the subject by saying, “When did Owen Charlton and those officers show up?”
“About two hours ago. I’ve been keeping them entertained. The others seem rather stiff and worried about something, but Mr. Charlton is a charming man, or at least pretends to be. Where do you know him from, Jamie?”
“Last time I saw him, he was in uniform, too. A colonel. I did some scouting under his command seven or eight years ago, over in the Missouri Territory. Reckon he’s either retired since then, or else he’s on some sort of special assignment that’s got him in civilian clothes.”
Jamie winced as Kate peeled the bandanna away from the wounds. She had loosened it enough with the wet rag to make it let go.
“Somebody could be carving on you with a bowie knife and you’d never make a sound or show it,” she said with a smile. “But let your wife do something that stings a little and you make a face like that.”
“Well, it stung more ’n a little,” Jamie said defensively, then grinned at her.
“It’s going to sting even more. I need to clean those scratches with whiskey. None of them look deep enough to require any stitches. I’ll just put some dressings on them and bind them in place. Considering all the other scars you have, these won’t even be that impressive.”
“That’s what I was thinking.”
As Kate continued working, she said, “I noticed something about this man Owen Charlton, Jamie. Like I told you, he’s very easygoing and charming, but I could see something in his eyes, some sort of pain that’s haunting him. Do you know anything about that?”
Jamie shook his head. “Not a blasted thing. You reckon he’s sick?”
“Not physically. This strikes me as something that hurts him differently. Something in . . . well, his soul.”
Jamie didn’t say anything to that, but he took Kate’s words seriously. She was as perceptive a person as he had ever met, and the best judge of character, to boot.
By the time he walked into the parlor again, with bandages tied around his chest and wearing a clean, homespun shirt over them, Falcon had come into the house and was straddling a chair he had turned around.
Owen Charlton smiled and said, “I’ve been telling your son about the advantages of a military career, Jamie. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Nope, but I’m afraid the boy may be too he. . .
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