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BUSTED

Fargo glared. There was only so much abuse he would take. “Don’t lay a hand on me again.”

“Or what?” Phil mockingly demanded.

“Or this.” Fargo hit him. He swept his right fist up from below his waist and planted it solidly on the cocky idiot’s jaw.

The blow jolted Phil onto his heels. He staggered and fell to one knee. His companion sprang to help and paid for his eagerness with a punch to the gut that doubled him over.

Thinking that was enough, Fargo swiveled to run after Draypool and the man in the dark suit, but he had taken only two steps when iron fingers locked onto his wrist and he was spun around a second time.

“I will bust you, mister!” Phil raged. Blood trickled from the left corner of his mouth, and bloodlust was in his eyes. He drew back his other hand, his fist balled. “Bust you good!”

The Colt was in Fargo’s hand before any of them could blink. “Bust this,” he said, and slammed the barrel against Phil’s temple.

The Trailsman

Beginnings . . . they bend the tree and they mark the man. Skye Fargo was born when he was eighteen. Terror was his midwife, vengeance his first cry. Killing spawned Skye Fargo, ruthless, cold-blooded murder. Out of the acrid smoke of gunpowder still hanging in the air, he rose, cried out a promise never forgotten.

The Trailsman they began to call him all across the West: searcher, scout, hunter, the man who could see where others only looked, his skills for hire but not his soul, the man who lived each day to the fullest, yet trailed each tomorrow. Skye Fargo, the Trailsman, the seeker who could take the wildness of a land and the wanting of a woman and make them his own.

The backwoods of Illinois, 1860—

where treachery lurks behind every tree

and a nation’s fate hangs in the balance.

Prologue

The moonless night was warm and muggy. The woods fringing a farm ten miles west of Charleston, South Carolina, were as black as ink. Through those woods glided five furtive forms. They were thankful for the shroud of darkness as they neared the barn and the old stone farmhouse.

Captain Frank Colter was the leader of the five. Colter wore civilian clothes, not his uniform, as did the sergeant and three privates under his command. He was armed with a pair of short-barreled Colt revolvers, concealed under his jacket. A career soldier, Colter headed a small but special unit that reported directly to General Ira Braddock. The unit existed for one purpose and one purpose only: to ferret out insurrectionists.

Now, as Frank Colter came to a willow and hunkered behind it to survey the outbuildings, he wondered if the information he had received was genuine or if he and his men were walking into a trap.

Sentiment against the United States government was at a fever pitch and rising. A number of Southern states openly talked of seceding if the North did not give in to their demands. General Braddock had told Colter that secret arms deals with foreign powers were being brokered. Equally disturbing were reports of covert groups and societies that had sprung up in the past year or so—groups and societies whose sole purpose was to foment rebellion and bring about the overthrow of the United States government by any means necessary.

The Secessionist League was one of those groups. It was rumored to have more than two hundred members across the country, among them powerful politicians and rich businessmen. Their names were kept secret, but the army had identified a handful of the members.

So far, the League had been content to send letters to the newspapers adding its voice to those demanding that the South break away from the North and form a separate government, but there were rumors, disturbing snippets picked up here and there, that the Secessionist League was plotting a diabolical act that would rock the nation.

Captain Frank Colter had been assigned to discover who the League’s members were and learn what they were up to. An informer had claimed that certain top members of the League were at that very moment meeting at the farmhouse to work out the final details of their plot. The information cost two hundred dollars, but Colter considered it money well spent if it turned out to be true.

Colter was about to raise his arm to signal his men to fan out when a cough snapped his gaze to a stocky form by the barn. A man with a rifle was at the far corner, intently watching the woods on both sides.

Colter’s thin lips compressed in a grim smile. The informer had not lied. Farmers did not post sentries to guard their cows. Shifting, he whispered his orders to Sergeant Pearson, who in turn relayed them to the others. As silently as stalking wolves, the four soldiers moved into position.

Captain Colter had allowed them five minutes. Then the Secessionist League would be in for an unwelcome surprise.

Colter had never thought he would live to see the day when American turned against American, when brother plotted to destroy brother. He came from a family with a tradition of proudly serving their country. His father and grandfather had been army officers, serving the Stars and Stripes with distinction. He was following in their honored footsteps.

It troubled Colter, troubled him deeply, that so many were willing to destroy the hard-won fruits of independence. Granted, no government was perfect, and there were problems. But with time and patience the two sides could work out their differences. Certain vested interests, though, did not want the differences worked out. They wanted discord. They wanted conflict. They wanted, unbelievably enough, war.

Colter was a soldier, but he had always believed that war should be an act of last resort. He would rather the two sides sat at a table and negotiated for years if need be, but that was not going to happen. He was too much of a realist to deny that the well-spring of hatred on both sides could end only one way.

Still, Colter would do what he could to delay that day as long as possible. To that end, he cat-footed from under the drooping boughs of the willow to a pile of freshly cut hay twenty yards from the barn.

He wished he had thought to bring a knife. He looked around but did not see a suitable rock. Resigned to clubbing the sentry with his revolver, he rose in a crouch and slid past the hay, placing each boot with care.

The sentry, with his back to Colter, was humming “Oh! Susanna.” He had set the stock of a Sharps rifle on the ground and was leaning on the barrel. Suddenly he raised the rifle, but he was only stretching. He smothered a yawn, then set the stock on the ground again.

By then Colter had only ten more feet to go. He was about to straighten when a movement beyond the man alerted him to a second sentry near the farmhouse. The second one was pacing back and forth near the porch, military fashion. Lamplight spilling through a window lent the man’s face a pale hue.

Tucking at the knees, Captain Colter froze. Where there were two sentries there might be more. He had to

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