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The First Mountain Man Cheyenne Challenge
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1995 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
Nothing much moves in the High Lonesome when Old Man Winter holds the land in his frigid grasp. The mountain man known simply as Preacher — though to many, the name held far more meaning than its simplicity implied — settled in at the cabin of an old friend, in a steep-walled valley that shielded it from the violent blasts of Canadian northers. He hunted for meat, smoked and jerked it, gathered other provisions, and watched the sky for signs of snow.
When the white powder lay hip-high, he had enough wood split and stacked to last the winter. By the time it grew to belly-high on a seventeen-hand horse, he had every small crack chinked, the chimney brushed clean, and a neat little corral set up with a four-sided shelter backed against one stern granite wall. Heavy yield in that winter of 1840-41 soon brought the snow level to roof-ridge height. Preacher had a tunnel out to the livestock, and kept the corral clear by some energetic, body-warming shoveling. Through it all, his cuts, scrapes, and bullet wounds healed.
All together, Preacher reckoned, when the buds began to swell on the willows, the cabin had been snug enough, nearly warm enough, and he had been almost amply fed. Lean and fit, although a little gaunt from his limited diet, Preacher began to itch to move along. He figured it was getting on toward late March and his only complaint came from a rhumaticky knee that resulted from too many hours in cold streams tending his traps in days gone by. Time to stretch like a cream-filled tomcat on the hearth and look for new places. The sun felt warm on Preacher's back as he breathed in the heady, leathery aroma of freshly saddle-soaped tack.
Looking up from tightening the last rope that secured the load on his pack saddle, he took in another chest-swelling breath tinged with the tang of pine resin and needles. Suddenly, his ebullient mood collapsed as he sensed the presence of another person. Preacher hadn't seen a single human since last October, when he went to the trading post at Trout Creek Pass for supplies. And he for certain didn't recall inviting anyone to drop in for a visit.
Thunder, his spotted-rump Appaloosa stud, had become aware of the intrusion, Preacher saw, as he cut his eyes to the suddenly tense animal. Thunder had gone wall-eyed, his ears pointed toward the front of the cabin beyond the corral. No doubt in his mind now, Preacher stepped away from the packhorse and walked past the brush-and-pole shelter. With what quiet he could muster, he mucked his way through the March mud toward the stout log dwelling. His right hand rested on the butt of one awesome four-barrel pistol.
Behind Preacher, the horses snuffled and whickered, having caught human scent and that of at least one of their own kind. Preacher tensed slightly. One did not survive more than twenty years in the wilds without being constantly alert. Preacher had come to the Shining Mountains as a wet-behind-the-ears lad of twelve or so and had so far kept his hair. He sure didn't hanker to lose any of it now.
So, Preacher had the big four-shooter halfway out from behind the broad, red sash at his waist when he rounded the cabin. He came face-to-face with a small, rat-faced individual who exhibited considerable surprise.
"Uh! You be the mountain man name of Preacher?" a fittingly squeaky rodent voice asked.
Right off, Preacher took in the long, narrow head, over-sized nose, and small, deep-set black eyes. Buck teeth and slicked-back ebony hair completed the likeness to a weasel. In fact, though Preacher didn't know it, the man before him went by the handle "Weasel" Carter. Preacher saw, too, that his unexpected visitor exhibited all the nervousness of a tomcat in a room full of rocking chairs. It all served to set Preacher's internal alarms to clanging.
"I be," Preacher allowed as he cut his eyes for a careful glance around the treeline.
That glance revealed to him some furtive movement among the aspen saplings and underbrush. His alarm system instantly primed Preacher for whatever might happen next.
Weasel Carter forced a fleeting, sickly, lipless smile, removed his hat and mopped his brow with a grimy kerchief. A fraction of a second later, Preacher's keen eyesight picked out a thin spurt of smoke from the priming pan of a flintlock rifle, an instant before he whipped out his four -shot and blasted a ball into the gut of his Judas goat.
At the same time, Preacher lashed out with his free hand, closed on a big fistful of shirt, and yanked his betrayer in front of himself. He did it in time for misfortune to strike the man in the form of the bullet meant for Preacher. A second later, three men rushed out of the concealment of the trees and fired at Preacher.
One ball moaned past, close to Preacher's left ear. The other two delivered more punishment to the runty piece of sorry trash Preacher held before himself like a shield. By then, Preacher had his four barrel back in action. The hammer dropped on a brass cap and the big .54 caliber ball spat out in a cloud of smoke and frame.
It struck the nearest would-be assassin in the breast bone and tore out a fist-sized chunk of spine on the way out of his body. Preacher worked the complicated action, lining up another barrel, and fired again. Double -shotted, it had considerably more recoil, yet the charge went true and gut -shot a scruffy, bearded man whom Preacher reckoned deserved to be called "Dirt."
With his final load, Preacher blew away the left side of the head of the last killer trash. The flattened ball left a glittering brown eye dangling on a sallow, hollow cheek. Bleeding horribly, the thug managed to draw a pistol from his waistband and bang off a round in Preacher's direction.
Preacher dodged it as though it represented nothing more than a snowball. While he did, he switched for the other fully-charged four -barrel and let fly. "I didn't ask for this," he yelled at the miraculously upright man, whose skull had been shot away in a wide trough above his left ear.
This time the ball entered the empty eye socket and blinked out the lights for the verminous gun man. That barrel always had shot a little high and right, Preacher recalled as he surveyed his littered dooryard.
"But I ain't disinclined to jine the dance to someone else's tune," he muttered a moment before Dirt moaned pitifully. Preacher crossed to the fallen ambusher. "You ain't got long. Speak," he commanded roughly.
"Th-tha's a fact. You done got me through the liver."
"Good riddance to trash like you, I say," Preacher growled as he knelt beside the dying man.
"You — you gonna jist leave me out here? Ain't gonna give me no Christian burial?"
"Weren't no Christian thing you done, sendin' that weasel faced punk in to set me up, neither."
"Jeez, you really are Preacher."
"I be. Who sent you four after me?"
Dirt eyed Preacher a long moment. Then he swallowed hard. "Thirsty."
"You're gut-shot right enough. Shouldn't be givin' you nothin' liquidy." Then Preacher grunted, shrugged and came to his moccasins from one knee. "Seein' as you're dyin' anyhow, I don't find no harm in it. I'll be back ... and I'll be wantin' the name of whoever it was sent you."
Preacher returned to Dirt's side after what the back-shooter thought to be an eternity. Preacher carried a small stoneware jug in one hand and a gourd ladle in the other. He eased down beside Dirt and put the ladle to the dying man's lips.
Dirt spluttered and tried to push it away. "That's not whiskey," he gasped out. "That — that's water."
"You got the right of it. The whiskey is for me, water for you. Last time, then I give you a whole world of more hurt. Who ... sent ... you?"
"Ez-Ezra Pease," Dirt gulped out, along with a bright crimson spew.
"Damn!" Preacher exploded. "I knewed that man were no good, first time I laid eyes on him. Ezra Pease," and Preacher pronounced the name to rhyme with peas. "Knew he was crooked, cheated the Injuns and whites alike, sold guns and whiskey to the Injuns. That finally riled me enough I beat the hell out of him and runned him out of the High Lonesome. He was tough, right enough, and I'd never have figgered him for a coward, that'd hire someone else to do his killing for him."
"Ain't no coward in Ez," Dirt retorted in a raspy whisper.
Preacher took a swig of whiskey. "That depends on whether you're on the receiving end or not. Where can I find him?"
Dirt forced a wan smile. "Ain't tellin' you that, Preacher."
Preacher shrugged, indifferently. "Then you'll take it to hell with you."
"I'll see you there," Dirt snarled, then he shivered violently and died.
"Maybe ... maybe not," Preacher observed idly, took another swallow of whiskey and set the jug aside.
He roused himself and dragged the four corpses to a deep wash, rolled them down to the bottom and collapsed a wide section of dirt and rocks from the lip on top of them. That would at least keep the critters away from them. He gathered up their weapons and located their horses. These he freed from bridle and saddle and sent them off on their own.
"Time to get goin', Thunder," he announced when he returned to the corral.
Preacher swung into the saddle and caught up the lead rope to the pack animal, then gigged them into motion. Ezra Pease had returned, Preacher mused as the miles slowly rolled by in an endless stream of aspen, hemlock, and pines. It had all begun some ten years ago at Rendezvous....
"New trader in camp," Jim Bridger confided to Preacher when he rode into the wide, gentle valley that housed Rendezvous for those in the fur trade that year. "I'll point him out. Like to see what you make of the cut of him."
Right then, Preacher suspected there might be something not quite right about the man. Bridger didn't often take to the judgments of other men, lessen he thought himself a mite too harsh in his own. Not that Jim Bridger was given to an overwhelming flow of the milk of human kindness. Most of his decisions were harsh. That's what kept him, or any man, alive out here in the Big Empty. All the same, Preacher ambled on into the growing gathering of white canvas tents, buffalo hide tipis, brush lean-tos, and other mobile dwellings of the hard, adventurous men who worked the mountains for the valuable furs that fed a hungry eastern market.
He came upon the new man only a quarter mile into the swarm of white men, Indians, and breeds. A big canvas awning had been stretched from the side of a small, mountain-type wagon. In its shade, behind the upright brass rods that held the outer edge, piles of boxes and crates, and stacks of barrels had been laid out to make what their owner hoped would be an attractive display. Several of the barrels bore the black, double-X mark that had already become a common symbol for the contents: whiskey.
Well and good, Preacher thought to himself. Wasn't a man-jack among them who didn't plan on some powerful likkerin' up while there. That's a lot of what Rendezvous was all about. For his own taste, though, Preacher opted to push on until he found the stout, pink-faced German fellow from Pennsylvania who dispensed the finest Manongahela rye this side of heaven.
A couple of hours later, his campsite staked out and shelter erected, somewhat mellowed by some of that smooth whiskey, Preacher had his warm attitude of contentment shattered by an uproar. It reached his ears from the direction of the new trader's layout he had passed on the way in. Always curious, and always eager to view or get involved in a good brawl, buckskin-clad streams of mountain men flowed past Preacher's haven.
Smacking his lips, Preacher put aside the jug of Manongahela rye, pushed upright to his moccasins and trotted off to witness the excitement. He elbowed his way between Slippery Jim and Broken Jaw Sloane to get a better view The new trader, with the help of a pair of louts who turned out to be his swampers, was whipping up on a slender, youthful Nez Perce brave. The white man looked to be in his mid to late thirties, which put him a good ten to twelve years older than Preacher at that time. While the louts held down the teenaged Nez Perce, the factor smashed vicious, painful blows to the Indian's face.
"You were gonna steal that knife, gawdamnit, I saw you," he roared.
"No, no," the brave protested in his own language, which Preacher had just put in six long months of winter learning. "I give two hands sable skins. Poor pelts you say," he added in heavily accented English. "Two hands sable skins for one knife. That too much but I take."
His watery blue eyes narrowed, the trader sneered back at the bleeding Indian. He hit the boy twice more and growled. "You don't have any way to prove that, buck. So, give up that knife and get out of here before I finish you off."
"I got it right here, Ez," one thick-lipped lout blurted, reaching under the securing thong of the Nez Perce's loincloth and pulling free a scabbarded Green River black iron butcher knife.
"Good. Toss it on the table over there." He bunched the youngster's hunting shirt in both fists and yanked the bruised and blood-smeared Indian upright. Ez spun him and gave the groggy youth a powerful boot to his posterior.
Propelled forward off balance, the Nez Perce rebounded off the shoulders of laughing mountain men. Some offered him a swig from a jug of liquor, others gave him friendly claps on the shoulders, or pitying looks. Two more rocky steps and he came up against the broad chest of Preacher.
"Blue Heron," Preacher said softly, recognizing the youth.
"White Wolf. That man cheats. He lies. He steals from us." It wasn't a self-pitying whine, or an excuse, it was said with the hot fire of anger burning brightly.
"You are sure?"
"I am sure," Blue Heron responded.
For a moment, Preacher looked beyond the shoulder of the young Indian and his eyes grew to slits. "It will be taken care of."
"White Wolf does not lie. I will be satisfied. Come visit us again. My sister misses you awfully." The last was delivered with as much as a mischievous expression as his bruised features could produce.
Preacher chose to ignore this reference to his amorous proclivities of the past winter. "Go with the wind, Blue Heron. "
Despite his pain and discomfort, Blue Heron's eyes twinkled. "Find sleep in a warm lodge, White Wolf."
Their exchange had been observed by Ez, who came at Preacher in a rush. "What'd that thievin' Hole-in-Nose say to you?"
Preacher gave him a cool, appraising gaze. "Nothin' that's any of your business, feller."
"B'God it is my business."
"Nope. Not by half," Preacher assured him. Then, his eyes the color of glare-ice, he added. "But I can make it a whole lot of mine."
Ez glowered as he studied the young man before him. Lean-hipped and rawhide tough, Ez could see this stranger had tremendous power in his upper body. He figured him to be smart, too, since he had learned that heathen savage's turkey-gobble lingo. Something about the casual way he wore those two .50 caliber pistols in his sash warned Ez that this stranger could be panther quick and deadly accurate with them. That, most of all, gave him pause. With a snort of impatience, Ez broke their locked gaze first.
He turned on one boot heel and stomped off. Slippery Jim and several others swarmed around Preacher in the next instant to welcome him and press invitations on him to visit firesides for a friendly round of "cussin', discussin', and drinkin'." Preacher said yes to all, though many knew full well he would not make it to their camp that night. Preacher spent the rest of the day asking questions about the new trader, Ez, and sharing jugs.
First off, he got a last name for the surly man. Pease. "He says it like them little green vegables," Beckworth informed Preacher. Coupled with what he had witnessed, Preacher soon developed an image of the man which far from pleased him. Yet, Ez Pease had done nothing directly to Preacher and he, like most of his fellow trappers, strongly believed in a man tending his own trapline.
As a result, Preacher decided to leave well enough alone. Yet, if the shadow of Pease ever fell across his path, Preacher would be more than happy to do something about it. The opportunity had come sooner than Preacher expected.
Three days went by in the usual boozy, raucous bon homme of Rendezvous. Preacher had all but forgotten the incident with his young Nez Perce friend. He had traded with the boy's father for Thunder. Now, horse trading was serious business to the Nez Perce. If a feller entered into the spirit of it, and they believed he had treated them fairly, although shrewdly, they respected that man for it. If he was generous with his sugar and coffee in the bargain, that man could have friends for life. Not forgetting, of course, that Injuns have notions. The day that recalled all of this to Preacher began normally enough.
Around noon, he and Big Foot Joe got into an eating contest. The man who could consume just one more than half of the small lumps of force meat, onions, and wild rice in a chain of pit-roasted intestine, in this case from an elk, was the winner. He split half of the gold, pelts, or other items bet on the outcome. Preacher's stout, youthful teeth gave him an advantage, which put him well on the way to the mid-point in the chain when an uproar rose from the southern end of the string of camps.
Excerpted from The First Mountain Man Cheyenne Challenge by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1995 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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