The Greatest Western Writer Of The 21st Century
A Woman For The Winter.
Montana Territory and a band of Assiniboine Indians give Preacher shelter for the winter. A beautiful woman named Raven’s Wing makes the sheltering even better—once he gets things straight with a jealous brave who wants to lift Preacher’s scalp.
A Fire In The Night.
Across the border is another wanderer and another tribe. Preacher’s old enemy, Willie Deaver, plies a band of Indians with the deadliest combination possible: whisky, guns and bullets—then directs them to try out their killing tools on the Assiniboine. The raid reaps a harvest of devastating death, bloodshed and helpless captives. Deaver is all the more delighted when he learns Preacher is among the fallen.
And The Fury Of A Mountain Man…
But in the driving, drifting snow, with a handful of bloodied survivors by his side, Preacher is rising: a rifle in his hands, red-hot fury in his heart, and icy vengeance in his gun sight…
The trading post was called Blind Pete’s Place. The proprietor wasn’t blind, and his name wasn’t really Pete. He was a German named Horst Gruenwald.
But he preferred to be called Pete, and since he was more than six feet tall and almost two hundred and fifty pounds of pure muscle, folks didn’t argue with him.
His eyes were his only weakness, and the thick spectacles he wore allowed him to see well enough to crack a troublemaker’s head open with a hamlike fist if he needed to.
Preacher wasn’t the given name of the man riding down a pinecovered hill toward the trading post, either, but it was what he had been called for a number of years, ever since he had saved himself from torture and death at the hands of his Blackfoot captors by preaching constantly for days and nights on end, thereby making them think he was crazy.
Most Indians wouldn’t kill a crazy person for fear that his spirit would return to haunt them, and the Blackfeet were no different.
Preacher was still young enough to be a vital, active man, but old enough that strands of silver had begun to appear in his thick black hair and beard. Years of exposure to the elements had tanned his visible skin to the color of old saddle leather. A hard life as a fur trapper in the Rocky Mountains had left him with a lean, muscular body under his buckskin shirt and trousers.
He balanced a longbarreled flintlock rifle across the saddle in front of him, and tucked behind his belt were a pair of loaded and charged pistols. Another brace of pistols rode in sheaths strapped to his saddle. In addition to the guns he carried a razorsharp hunting knife.
Preacher was widely regarded as one of the most dangerous men in these mountains. He could kill a man in any number of ways, including with his bare hands.
Some of the tribes knew him as White Wolf, because he resembled a dangerous lobo, while others called him Ghost Killer because of his almost supernatural ability to slip into a camp, slit the throats of his enemies, and get back out again without anyone even knowing he was there until it was too late to help his victims.
At the moment, however, Preacher didn’t feel like killing anybody. He was tired and thirsty. He wanted a drink, maybe some hot food, and then he would find himself a place to camp near the trading post. Recently he had spent several months down in Santa Fe, recuperating from some injuries, so he’d had plenty of having a roof over his head for a while.
A big, shaggy, wolflike cur padded alongside the rangy gray stallion Preacher rode. He called the dog Dog and the horse Horse. Simple was best, in Preacher’s book.
When Dog looked back over his shoulder and whined, Preacher said, “Go ahead, you varmint. I know you’re itchin’ to get there and say howdy to your sweethearts.”
Tongue lolling happily, Dog bounded on down the hill ahead of Preacher and Horse. Blind Pete had a couple of wolfhound bitches, and Dog was eager to get reacquainted with them.
Preacher didn’t feel the same need for female companionship right now. Having a woman around was like having a roof over his head. He’d had plenty of that while he was in Santa Fe. A pretty señorita named Juanita had nursed him back to health, and she’d had it in her mind that Preacher would spend the winter with her.
When the wild geese began to fly, though, he knew it was time to head north. The mountains called to him.
“You been to this place before?”
Preacher looked over at the small, elderly black man who rode beside him. He nodded to Lorenzo and said, “Yeah, a heap of times.”
“Folks around here got anything against colored fellas?”
Preacher grunted disdainfully.
“You could be colored green or blue and it wouldn’t make a lick of difference. Out here in the mountains we judge folks by what they do, not what they look like.”
“Well, that’s the way it oughta be, I reckon. But that ain’t always how it is.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” Preacher said.
“I’ll take your word for it.”
Preacher had met Lorenzo back in St. Louis, where he had gone to settle a score with an old enemy. They had been traveling together ever since.
Lorenzo had never been West before, and he was enjoying the journey.
The two riders reached the bottom of the hill and started across a stretch of open ground toward the trading post, which was built near a fastflowing creek. It was a sturdy, sprawling log building with a stockade fence around it that also enclosed a barn and corral.
Watchtowers rose at each corner of the fence. The place was laid out with defense against attack in mind.
Preacher recalled that there had been a few skirmishes between Pete and the Indians in the early days after the German had established the trading post, but for the most part the tribes left him alone now. As a young man, Horst Gruenwald had been a Hessian mercenary and served as a cannoneer in the Revolutionary War, fighting in the employ of the British.
When it became obvious to Horst that he was on the side destined to lose, he had taken off for the tall and uncut and declared himself an American. Years later, when he decided to go West and see the frontier, he had somehow gotten hold of a threepounder and hauled it out here with him.
After a few war parties had been shredded by canister rounds from that cannon, the rest of the Indians in the area had gotten the idea that it might be wise to avoid Blind Pete’s.
Things were peaceful enough these days that the gate in the fence stood wide open. Dog was already inside the stockade. Preacher and Lorenzo followed, trailing the pack horses behind them. Preacher lifted a hand in a lazy wave to a man lounging in one of the guard towers.
Preacher and Lorenzo intended to move farther north, and they needed to replenish their supplies while they had the chance. That was why they were stopping here at Blind Pete’s Place.
A number of horses milled around in the corral. Preacher studied them, thinking that he might recognize a mount he knew. None of the animals seemed familiar to him, though.
But that didn’t mean much. He had been away from the mountains for a while, and in that time, trappers he knew could have changed horses. Some friends of his might be inside the trading post, even if he didn’t see their horses in the corral.
Some of his enemies might be in there, too. Preacher was just as interested in that possibility.
But he never went in anywhere without being careful about it. Blind Pete’s would be no different.
Preacher didn’t intend to spend the night here, so he and Lorenzo rode to the hitch rack in front of the main building instead of the corral and dismounted. The mountain man looped Horse’s reins around the rack and tied the pack animals there as well.
He had just stepped up onto the porch when he heard a deep, powerful voice he recognized coming through the open door.
“Now thou hast but one bare hour to live, and then thou must be damned perpetually! Stand still, you evermoving spheres of Heaven, that time may cease, and midnight never come.”
Lorenzo frowned in confusion and asked, “What’s that fella goin’ on about?”
“Not much tellin’,” Preacher said with a grin. “He’s always got somethin’ to say, though.”
“You know him?”
“Yep. Fancies hisself a orator.”
Lorenzo shook his head. Preacher didn’t say anything else. It would all become clear to his companion soon. The two of them stepped into the trading post.
The main room was a big, lowceilinged chamber. To the right were a bar and several tables, to the left shelves and crates and barrels full of merchandise with a counter at the far end of the room. The floor was made of rough puncheons hewn from split logs. Planks sitting on barrels formed the bar, and the tables and benches were as rough as the floor, which meant a fella had to be careful when he sat in order to avoid getting splinters in his behind.
One of the benches had been pulled into an open area of floor. The man who had been spouting words as Preacher and Lorenzo entered stood on the bench with one arm lifted over his head in a dramatic stance.
He was only about three and a half feet tall, but his brawny shoulders and full beard testified that he was a man fullgrowed, or as fullgrowed as he was going to get, anyway. His eyes widened at the sight of the tall, lean figure in the doorway, and he exclaimed, “Preacher!”
“Good to see you again, Audie,” Preacher said with a nod.
Nimbly, the little man hopped down from the bench and hurried toward the newcomers. He held out a hand and shook gravely with Preacher.
With his other hand, he jerked a thumb toward a blanketwrapped shape sitting in a corner.
“I’m afraid my recitation fromDr. Faustus has put Nighthawk to sleep. The unenlightened fellow never has had much appreciation for the works of Marlowe. He’s more partial to the Immortal Bard, although of course there are some scholars who make the claim that Marlowe actually penned those words attributed to the actor from StratfordonAvon. But I’m positive that he’ll be quite pleased to see you when he awakens. Nighthawk, I mean, not Bill Shakealance.”
Preacher grinned over at Lorenzo, who stood there openmouthed in awe.
“Yeah, he does like to go on a mite,” Preacher said. “Audie, meet Lorenzo. Him and me been travelin’ together for a spell.”
Audie grabbed the stunned Lorenzo’s hand and pumped it heartily.
“The honor is mine, sir. Any boon companion of Preacher’s is a boon companion of mine.”
“Uh, sure,” Lorenzo said. “Pleased to meet you, too.”
“The Crow over yonder in the blanket is Night hawk,” Preacher went on. “He don’t say much, so he sorta balances Audie out when it comes to talkin’.”
“We’re a fine pair indeed,” Audie agreed. “You’re not wintering in St. Louis this year, Preacher?”
The mountain man grimaced and shook his head.
“I’ve had enough of that damned St. Looie to last me for a long time,” he said. “I might just spend the rest of my life in these here mountains.”
“There are much worse places to be, that’s indisputable. Nighthawk and I have been giving some thought to spending the winter with Chief Bent Leg and his band of Assiniboine. Perhaps you and Lorenzo would care to join us.”
“That ain’t a bad idea.” Preacher turned to Lorenzo and went on, “Ol’ Bent Leg’s a pretty good fella, and his people are friendly to the whites.”
“You maybe got so used to bein’ around me, Preacher, that you don’t notice no more, but I ain’t exactly white,” Lorenzo pointed out.
“To the Assiniboine you are, or might as well be. That’s one thing about the tribes . . . To their way of thinkin’, there’s them, and then there’s everybody else. The names of the tribes usually translate to ‘The People’ or ‘The Real People’ or ‘The True People.’ Some of ’em are more tolerant of us lower classes than others. Like Nighthawk’s people, the Crow, generally get along with most other folks except for the Blackfeet. Those two bunches don’t cotton to each other at all.”
“Umm,” Nighthawk said from the corner without looking up.
Audie started toward one of the tables and motioned for Preacher and Lorenzo to follow him.
“I think we could all use a libation—” he began.
That was when a man at one of the other tables stood up and said in a loud, angry voice, “Hey, Little Bit, you can’t just stop in the middle of a poem like that. You need to finish up your recitin’, damn your midget hide.”
Preacher stiffened and said, “Aw, hell,” under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Lorenzo asked.
“I don’t know who that fella is, but now he’s gone and done it.”
Preacher recalled something he had heard Audie quote once. He said, “He done cried havoc, and let slip the dogs o’ war.”