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"I reckon," Preacher said to his pa and ma one day, "I best be thinkin' of headin' back to the High Lonesome."
"It's been so good to see you, son," his mother said, placing her hand over his. "But I fear for you here."
"You don't need to be fearful for me, Ma," Preacher said. "That bully-boy pulled a blade on me. I had no choice in the matter."
"Your mother's right, son," Preacher's father said, stuffing his old pipe full of tobacco. He knelt by the fire and picked out a lighted twig and puffed. Back in his chair, he said, "You've left us money a-plenty to last for the rest of our years. I don't want to see grief come to you. And it will come if you stay around here."
Preacher knew his parents were right. He just didn't want to admit it.But he knew he'd out-stayed his welcome in town. He just didn't fit in. Preacher was all muscle and bone and gristle. He was tanned dark by the sun and the wind, he carried the scars of a dozen deadly battles, and he operated under no moral or legal code save that of his own. And nobody was going to make him conform to any standard except that which he considered fair. But in his own peculiar way, Preacher was a highly moral man for the time, this year of our Lord, eighteen hundred and forty. He had the utmost respect for womanhood. He loved the land and the critters on it. He could not abide injustice. He didn't like lawyers and thought the country in general was going to Hell in a handbasket.
Preacher nodded his head. "You're both right. My good brothers won't even come around whilst I'm here."
His mother smiled. "They're afraid of you, son. They belong to order and families and the clock. You belong to the wilderness. Their lives are routine. Your life is like the wind. They don't, can't, understand that."
Preacher cut his eyes to the west. "For a fact," he muttered, "I have missed the mountains."
His father's old eyes twinkled. "I see where you've packed your gear. You must have been thinking about leaving."
Preacher laughed and gently placed one strong hand on his father's stooped shoulders, bent from years of brutally hard work, clearing the land and wrestling a living from the soil. "I reckon I'll pull out come the mornin'. Ma, if you'll make me a little poke of food, I'd be obliged." He stood up.
"Where are you going, son?" his mother asked.
"Oh, I think I'll take me a little stroll through the town. Give the good folks one last look 'fore they're shut of me." He looked at this parents. "You know when I leave this go-round, I prob'ly won't be back."
They nodded their heads.
Preacher stepped out of the house into the cold early March air of Ohio. A thin covering of new snow the past night had laid a carpet of white over the land. Preacher checked on his horse, Thunder, and then decided to stretch his legs and walk the short distance into the village. A town, actually. Darn near five hundred people lived all crowded up like ants.
Preacher still drew stares from the citizens but he paid them no heed, just walked on to the combination coach stop, hotel, and tavern and opened the door. The buzz of conversation stopped when he padded silently up to the bar, the soles of his high-topped moccasins making no more than a whisper on the floor. He leaned on the bar and ordered a whiskey with a beer chaser.
Several ladies who had stopped there for the night and were waiting on the afternoon coach began whispering behind their fancy fans. Preacher paid them no mind. From the looks of them they were city women, all gussied up to beat the band. Preacher took a sip of whiskey and a sip of beer. He hid a smile as the few locals who were lined up at the bar backed away, clear down to the end, getting as far away from Preacher as they could. It had been in this very tavern, just two weeks past, that Preacher had killed that feller who shucked out his knife during what Preacher had thought was just a friendly fist-fight. Preacher had left him on the floor, cut from navel to neck.
The door opened and a frail boy of about nine or ten entered. They boy's clothing was ragged and the soles of his shoes were tied on with string. He carried a small bucket with a lid on it. The top of the boy's head just did reach the lip of the bar. He placed the bucket on the bar and said, "A bucket of beer for Mister Parks, please, sir."
The barkeep took the bucket to rinse it out and the boy looked at the free lunch on the table, hunger in his eyes. His pinched face was pale and his eyes held a strange brightness.
"You hungry, boy?" Preacher asked.
The boy's eyes were scared as they fixed on the mountain man. "Yes, sir. Some."
"Then fix you a sandwich or two."
"That food's for customers!" the barkeep hollered.
"The lad just bought a bucket of beer, didn't he?" Preacher asked. "So that entitles him to food. Fix you something to eat, boy."
"I'll slap you, boy!" the barkeep barked. "You stay away from that food, you ... woods' colt."
Preacher gave the barkeep a disgusted look as he walked to the table and fixed two huge meat and cheese sandwiches and gave them to the boy. "You sit over there by the stove and eat and get warm, boy." He turned to the barkeep. "You want to slap me?"
The man paled. "Ah, no, sir!"
"Fine. Now you pour that lad a big glass of milk and then go on about your business and leave the boy alone."
The boy fell into a hard fit of coughing that reddened his face. Bad lungs, Preacher thought. A wonder he lived through the winter.
Hard footsteps slammed on the boards outside the coach stop and the door was flung open. The hard and big bulk of Elam Parks filled the doorway, his face mottled with rage. He held a quirt in one hand. He pointed the quirt at the boy. "What the hell do you think you're doing, Eddie?" he shouted. "I didn't give you permission to eat."
"No. But I did," Preacher said.
In the time Preacher had been in town, he'd seen enough of Elam Parks to last him two lifetimes. Parks was an important man about the community. He owned several farms, a couple of businesses, and about fifty percent of the local bank. His brother was in tight with the governor, or senator, or some damn blow-heart politician. Parks thought himself the bull of the woods around these parts. He was a bully and a slave-driver to those who had the misfortune to work for him. He gave Preacher the same type of look he might give a roach. Then he turned to the boy.
"Get up and get back to work, you worthless whelp!"
"When he finishes his meal," Preacher said.
Parks turned to face Preacher. He was a big'un, all right. Preacher guessed him at about six feet, one inch, with the weight to go with it. A big man with hard packed muscle. "This is none of your affair, Mountain Man," Parks said, contempt dripping from each word. "So stay out of it. The boy is bound to me and does what I tell him to do." "Bound, huh? I thought that practice stopped a long time ago. I never did hold with it. It's just a fancy word for slavery. I don't hold with that either. You eat your meal, Eddie. This big mouth can wait."
Elam started stuttering and sputtering, his face beet red. People just didn't talk to him in such a manner. He pointed the quirt at the Preacher and shouted, "I'll have you run out of town, you, you ... trash!"
Preacher smiled and finished his whiskey. He sat the cup on the bar and said, "You figure on doin' that all by yourself, or you gonna call some boys to help you?"
Preacher cut his eyes to the little boy. Eddie was gobbling down his sandwiches as fast as he could. It was evident to Preacher that the sick little boy had not had sufficient food in a long time.
Elam dropped his quirt on the table. "Mountain Man, you have had your way in this town for long enough. You been strutting about like a peacock. You need to learn a hard lesson, and I am just the man to teach you."
"Is that a fact?" Preacher hesitated for a moment, not wanting to bring any further grief to his parents. "Well, mayhaps you're right. I brung mountain ways to this town and expected folks hereabouts to accept 'em. I do apologize for that. But I don't apologize for standing up for the lad yonder. He's a mighty sick little boy. And he's got marks on his face that I just noticed under all that grime. Have you been beatin' on him, Parks?"
"The boy lacks discipline and motivation. Besides, he's bound to me and what I do is no concern of yours. But now that you have backed down from this issue, we'll call it even and forget it."
"Whoa!" Preacher said. "I ain't never backed down from no man. So don't you be puttin' the cart ahead of the horse." He looked at Eddie. "You want some pie or cake, boy?"
"Now, that's all!" Elam blurted. "I have had quite enough of this foolishness." He moved swift for a man his size. Elam slammed a heavy hand down on Eddie's shoulder and jerked him to his raggedy shoes. He flung the boy toward the door. Eddie struck the wall and cried out in pain.
Preacher took two steps forward and started his punch from down around his knees. The big hard right fist caught Elam on the side of the jaw and stretched the man out on the floor, blood leaking from his mouth.
"Oh, my God!" a local blurted. "Somebody run get Doctor Ellis."
Preacher knelt down beside Eddie. There was a bump on the boy's head and a slight cut oozing a tiny bit of blood. "Gimmie a wet cloth," Preacher said. When nobody moved, he added, "Now, damnit!"
One local ran out the door for the doctor while another handed Preacher a dampened cloth. Preacher gently bathed the frightened boy's face then picked him up and sat him in a chair. "You just take it easy 'til the doc gets here, boy."
"Mountain Man," a fancy dressed dude said, "you'd best haul your ashes out of here. Elam Parks is a big man in this state. You're prison bound when he wakes up."
Preacher ignored the warning. Obviously, Elam Parks had the whole damn town buffaloed. He looked up as his older brother rushed into the tavern.
The older man looked at the prostrate Parks and blurted, "My God, Art! Have you taken leave of your senses? That's Elam Parks."
"No kiddin'? I'd a swore it was a brayin' jackass and nothin' more." He pointed to Eddie. "What's the story on this here boy, Brother?"
"He's a woods' colt. Elam bound him out of the orphanage to work for him. Nobody gives a hoot about that brat."
"Wrong, Brother. I give a hoot." The doctor ran in and started for the still unconscious Parks. Preacher grabbed his arm and halted him. "You check the boy first, Doc. Then you tell me about him."
Dr. Ellis hesitated, took a short look into Preacher's cold eyes, then shrugged his shoulders. He checked Eddie, put some antiseptic on the small cut and took Preacher's arm, leading him away from the boy.
"The boy is dying, Mister. Lung fever. It's a miracle he lived through the winter. The next winter will kill him for sure."
"All right. Now you can go check on stupid over yonder." He walked over to Eddie, past the out-of-town women who were vigorously fanning themselves, their faces flushed from all the excitement. "You got any belongin's, boy?"
"A few, sir."
"Go fetch them. You're shut of this town and its sorry people. You're comin' with me."
The boy's sad eyes brightened. "Really?"
"Really. Go on. Get back here as quick as you can." Preacher walked over to the bar and finished his beer. He watched through amused eyes as several men tried to get Parks up on his feet. "You best get you a hoist," he called. "It'll take it to get that moose up."
Parks finally managed to sit up on the floor, but his jaw was swollen and his eyes were glazed. Dr. Ellis bathed his face and the man's eyes began to focus. Pure hate was shining through, all of it directed at Preacher.
"Was I you, Parks," Preacher said, "I'd be real careful what come out of my mouth right about now. As upsot as you are, you just might let your butt overload it."
Preacher's brother rushed over to help Elam get to an upright position. He brushed at Elam's coat, all the while apologizing for Preacher's actions.
"That's right, Brother," Preacher drawled. "Suck up to him."
Elam shoved the men away from him. "Mountain Man, if you're in town an hour from now, have a gun in your hand."
"I'll prob'ly be in town. And if I am, I'll have a gun to hand, Parks. But you best remember this, Parks: I ain't no poor sick little boy. You level a pistol at me and the undertaker will be givin' you your last tidyin' up."
Parks snorted his reply and stalked out of the tavern just as Eddie was returning. He drew back his hand to strike the boy and Preacher said, "I'll break your arm, Parks."
Elam lowered his hand and stomped off. Preacher looked at the rags Eddie had stuffed into a sack and tossed them into a corner. "We'll get you some new duds, Eddie. But first we get you a bath and a haircut. Then we'll dust this town."
"Where are we going, Mister Preacher?"
"Where the air is pure and clean. Where them lungs of yours can heal. West, boy. To the mountains."
"You know where Elm Street is, Eddie?"
"Yes, sir, Mister Preacher."
"I'm Preacher, boy. Not mister. You go over to Elm. Second house on the right. Wait there for me. My ma and pa is there. You tell Ma I said to get that poke of food ready. I'll be along shortly."
"Mister Elam's a bad one. He's kilt men before, Preacher," Eddie warned.
"Not as many as I have. Go on."
Preacher made sure the boy was on his way, proudly riding his new pony, and then he stepped out into the street. The town lay silent under the cold sun. Preacher walked right up the center of the main street.
"You there!" the constable called to Preacher from under the awning of his office. "I order you in the name of the law to cease and desist."
"Go suck an egg," Preacher told him.
"I'm the law around here!" the man bellowed.
"Congratulations. Now go back into your office and drink coffee. Stay off the street."
"You can't talk to me like that!"
Preacher ignored him and kept on walking. A block ahead of him, Elam Parks stepped off the boardwalk and into the street, a pistol in each hand. The two men began closing the distance.
"This don't have to be, Elam!" Preacher called. "You abused the boy and got socked in the jaw for it. Now it's done and past. It ain't nothin' worth dyin' over."
But for Elam, time for talking was gone. He had been humiliated in his own town and had to redeem himself in the eyes of the citizens. He lifted a pistol and fired. The ball missed Preacher by several feet.
"You better make the next one count, Elam," Preacher called, his own pistol still holstered.
Elam fired his second pistol. Again he missed.
"Now it's over, Elam," Preacher called. "You took your shots and you missed. I ain't gonna fire. Go on home. You'll not see me nor the boy never again."
Elam was frantically reloading. "You son of a whore!" he yelled at Preacher.
Excerpted from THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN FORTY GUNS WEST by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2006 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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