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THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN: PREACHER'S JUSTICE
By WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE
PINNACLE BOOKSCopyright © 2007 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe sky over the Rocky Mountains was a brilliant, crystalline blue. Though it was cloudless now, it had snowed steadily for the previous twenty-four hours and a deep pack on the ground was painfully bright under the relentless sun. It also made traveling difficult, so the man everyone called Preacher had not even attempted to ride his horse this morning. Instead, the mountain man and fur trapper had taken a pack mule with him, and he led the animal, laboriously breaking a path through the nearly waist-deep snow. The mule was carrying a string of beaver traps that, over the previous several days, had been carefully inspected. Repairs had been made as necessary.
Preacher, who was twenty-seven years old, had been trapping in these mountains since he was fourteen. He had a dark shock of hair that he kept trimmed with a sharp knife. Though it was sometimes difficult to do so, he also managed to shave at least two or three times a week so that, while he often had stubble, he never had a beard. His eyes were dark. From a distance one might think they were brown, but upon closer examination they proved to be a deep, cobalt blue. He was a little taller than average, and slender of build, but with broad shoulders and muscular arms and powerful legs strengthened by his years of trapping in the mountains.
Preacher looked toward a distinctive peak and saw feathery tendrils of snow streaming out from it in the cold, piercing wind of the higher climes. The snow crystals glistened in the sun and formed a prism of color to crown the beauty of the rugged mountains and dark green trees. From that peak, which Preacher called Eagle's Beak, the young mountain man got his bearings. Thus oriented, he started up a narrow draw until he found the creek he was looking for.
Preacher ground-hobbled his mule, took some of the traps, then stepped out into the stream, breaking through the thin ice that had formed at the stream's edge. The nearly paralyzing cold shot up his legs as he waded in the water, looking for the best place to put his traps. It would have been easier and less painful to move along the shoreline, but he'd learned long ago to use the water as a means of masking his scent from the beaver.
Finally, he came to the place he had discovered five years earlier, a place rich with beaver that had so far been undiscovered by the other trappers. Since his discovery, he had worked this area as if it were his own private reserve. While there was no such thing as privately owned land here, the trappers recognized and followed a code of the right of territory according to who came first.
Dropping all his traps in the water, Preacher began setting them by depressing the springs by standing on them, putting one foot on each trap arm to open it up. When the trap was opened, he engaged the pan notch, holding it in the set position.
As each trap was set, he would extend the trap chain to its fullest length out toward the deeper water, where a trap stake was passed through the ring at the end of the chain and driven into the streambed.
Finally, he placed the bait. The bait was a wand of willow, cut to a length that would permit its small end to extend from the stream bank directly over the pan of the trap. Bark was scraped from the stick and castoreum was smeared on the end of the switch, so that it hung about six inches or more above the trap. Castoreum was an oil taken from the glands of a beaver. Once his traps were set, Preacher returned to the tiny cabin he would call home while wintering in the mountains.
It was no secret that Preacher had hit upon a mother lode of beaver. Every year his catch was consistently the highest, or very near the highest, taken. While others might have envied him his good luck, they were bound by the code they all followed not to horn in on him.
But there was one trapper who wasn't bound by this, or any other code, and he was determined to find Preacher's secret location. He didn't know where Preacher trapped, but he did know where he lived. He had made camp near Preacher's cabin, surviving the storm just passed, in order to follow him to his secret place.
The recent snow made it very easy to follow, because he didn't even have to stay in contact with Preacher. All he had to do was follow the path left by Preacher and his mule through the snow.
"It'll be like taking a sugar-tit from a baby," he said with a gruff laugh.
His traps set, Preacher returned to his little cabin. This was his seventh year in this same location, and over the years he had made several modifications to improve the living conditions. The thick log walls were well chinked with mud and insulated with moss so that even the coldest arctic blasts were kept at bay.
Initially, the cabin had been heated with a fireplace, but a few years ago he'd bought an iron stove at Rendezvous and hauled it back on one of his pack mules. The stove was a marvel of efficiency, heating the cabin much better and with considerably less wood than was consumed by the fireplace. It also made it easier to cook his meals because he could set a pot right on top of the stove, rather than moving it from place to place within the fireplace.
Preacher had become a pretty good cook over the years of living alone. When he returned home after setting the traps, he was greeted with the enticing aroma of a simmering beaver-tail stew. He rolled out some biscuits and put them on to bake.
Automatically, he made an extra biscuit for Dog, then remembered that Dog wasn't with him. Dog was back in St. Louis, looking after Jennie.
Preacher missed the animal that had been his sole companion out here. He recalled the way he had come by Dog. A few years ago, the traders at Rendezvous had formed an alliance designed to keep the price of pelts down. Preacher had decided to take his pelts back to St. Louis and sell them himself.
He was about three weeks on the trail when shortly after nightfall, as he was laying out his bedroll, he became aware of eyes staring at him from the dark. With the hair standing up on the back of his neck, he slipped his pistol from his belt and stared into the black maw that surrounded his camp.
"Who's there?" he called.
There was no response.
"Who's there?" he called again, and this time he augmented his call with the deadly clicking sound of his pistol being cocked.
A low, frightening growl came from the darkness.
"Are you a wolf?" Preacher called.
Thinking to lure the animal from the darkness, he took a piece of rabbit and held it up. "Come on in, boy. Come get this meat."
Tossing the meat about ten feet in front of him, he raised his pistol, ready to shoot the moment the wolf showed itself.
It wasn't a wolf, at least not a full-blooded wolf, though it clearly had many of the markings and features of a wolf. It was a dog. The animal walked into pistol range, growling, its eyes locked on the mountain man as it moved toward the proffered morsel.
Preacher lowered his pistol and watched as the big dog used its powerful jaws to pull the meat away from the bone. The dog fascinated him, not only by its size and power, but also by the way it carried itself, clearly showing no fear.
When the dog finished the first piece of meat, Preacher threw another piece out, this one closer to him than the first. The dog came for it. By the time he threw the last piece of meat, the dog was quite close. In fact, it was close enough for Preacher to touch. He did so, rubbing the dog behind its ears.
"How'd you get way out here in the middle of nowhere?" Preacher asked.
Though the dog didn't snuggle against his hand, it was friendly enough to be non-threatening. The growling had ceased.
The dog slept near Preacher that night, and when Preacher got ready to leave the next day, the dog jumped onto the boat with him. Preacher named the dog "Dog," and they became companions. Preacher always thought of him as his companion, not as his possession. Dog clearly belonged to no one but Dog.
Last year, concerned for the safety of Jennie, he left Dog with her, charging the animal with the responsibility of looking out for the woman that came closer to being Preacher's woman than any other. Thus it was that when Preacher returned to the mountains, Dog went with Jennie to St. Louis.
Clearly, Dog would have preferred to come back with Preacher. It showed in his eyes as Preacher took his leave. But Preacher had made it personal, asking Dog, as a favor to him, to stay and watch after Jennie. Dog accepted the responsibility without complaint.
"I miss you, Dog," Preacher said aloud. "I can get along without people just fine. Truth to tell, I prefer it without people. But I do wish I had you around to keep me company."
It wasn't all that unusual for Preacher to talk aloud, even though there was no one there. Although he enjoyed solitude, there were times when he wanted to hear a human voice, even if it was his own.
When the biscuits were done, Preacher took a couple of them, spooned up a generous serving of the stew, and sat at the crude table he had made to enjoy his dinner.
As Preacher ate his meal, he went through the figures in his little ledger book. If he had as good a year this year as he did last, and he had no reason to suspect that he wouldn't, he would be able to add substantially to his bank account.
By the standards of the day, Preacher could almost count himself a rich man. He was worth just under fifteen thousand dollars, and would go over that amount by the end of the season. The funny thing was, money meant nothing to him except as a means of keeping score. With what he had now, he could buy the finest house in St. Louis and live in luxury for many years.
Sometimes he felt guilty for not doing that. He could marry Jennie and make a good life for her and for himself. But even the thought of such a thing was difficult to consider. He looked up from his ledger and peeked through the window-made of real glass that he'd packed in three years ago-at the ruggedly beautiful terrain surrounding his cabin.
"I'm sorry, Jennie, ole girl," Preacher said quietly. "To the degree that I can understand love between a man and a woman, I probably love you. But if I gave all this up, I would have such a hunger for it in my heart that there would be nothing left for you. I hope you understand."
When Preacher returned to check out his traps a few days later, he was surprised to see that they had all been removed, set aside, and replaced by another man's traps. Angrily, he removed the new traps and put his own back in place. The process took most of the day.
It was one thing to crowd in on another man's territory. That was done from time to time, and it nearly always brought about harsh feelings. But to actually remove another man's traps was an affront of the worst kind.
Preacher considered breaking the offending traps, but finally decided against it. Instead, he left one of them on the bank of the stream and placed rocks on the ground in the form of an arrow, pointing toward his cabin, indicating that if the man wanted to retrieve his traps, he would have to come see Preacher to get them. When Preacher returned to his cabin, he hung the poacher's traps up on the outside wall, in plain view of anyone who might happen by.
Exactly one week later, Preacher was tending to his mules when he saw a lone figure trekking across the snow-covered meadow that separated Preacher's cabin from the woods. The man was wearing a buffalo robe and a fur cap, and as he crossed the meadow he left a long, dark smear in the pristine white snow behind him.
No doubt, this was the one who had attempted to poach on Preacher's territory. Preacher had left his weapons inside. However, there was a hatchet nearby. Preacher felt a sense of security in believing that if need be, he could arm himself.
Before the man was halfway across the meadow, Preacher recognized him as Henri Mouchette. He wasn't surprised that this was the man who had so blatantly violated the trappers' code. Mouchette had the reputation of being someone who was very hard to get along with. He was even suspected of stealing from other traps, though as no one had ever actually caught him doing it, the accusation had never been brought before the trappers' court.
"Hello, Mouchette," Preacher greeted him. "What brings you by?" Preacher knew full well why Mouchette was there, but he decided to play the game.
Mouchette stopped a few feet away from Preacher. He was breathing rather hard from the effort of both climbing and having to cut a trail through the snow. Clouds of vapor surrounded his head.
"You son of a bitch, you stole my traps," Mouchette said.
"I haven't stolen them, Mouchette," Preacher replied. He pointed to the traps hanging from his front wall. "As you can see, they are hanging right here, in clear sight."
"They're here now, but you took them from the stream," Mouchette said.
"Oh, yes, siree, I did that, all right," Preacher said easily. "As a matter of fact, I took them right after you took mine."
"That is my place," Mouchette insisted, pointing to himself with his thumb.
"And what makes you think that is your place, seein' as I was there first?" Preacher asked.
"I been trappin' that stream for years. Hell, I was trappin' it when you was a pup," Mouchette said.
"You know as well as I do that the first person to arrive at a stream has the right to put out his own traps. I didn't see any traps here when I arrived."
"I laid off a couple of years because I didn't want the stream to be over-trapped," Mouchette said. "I quit trapping so it could recover. Then, when I went back to it, I seen your traps there. I didn't figure that to be right, so I took 'em out."
"Are you saying you were trapping there two years ago?" Preacher asked.
"Yeah, that's what I'm saying. Two years ago, I trapped the stream. Then I let it be for two years."
"Well, now, that's where the mistake is," Preacher said. "You must have your streams mixed up. I have been trapping this same stream for five years now, so you couldn't have been here two years ago."
"I ain't the one that made the mistake. It was you," Mouchette insisted. "By all that's right, that stream belongs to me."
"Not now, it doesn't. Put your traps somewhere else."
"I aim to put my traps right back where I had them," Mouchette insisted. "And I plan to get your traps out of there."
Preacher's eyes narrowed. "Well now, Mr. Mouchette, I would strongly advise you against doing that," he said.
Mouchette glared at Preacher for a long moment. Then, without another word, he took his traps and trekked back into the woods, once more leaving his footprints in the snow behind him. Preacher noted, with some satisfaction, that he wasn't heading toward the stream in question.
Preacher waited four days before he returned to the stream. Evidently, Mouchette had paid heed to Preacher's warning, because Preacher's traps were still in place.
It was nearly three weeks after his encounter with Mouchette when the shot came. Preacher was gathering his first crop of beaver pelt. The traps were full, and the beaver were prime with rich coats. He had bent over to check something when a ball whizzed by, right where his head had been. Had the shot been fired half a second earlier, Preacher's blood and brains would have decorated the tree beside him. Instead, there was just a streak of green wood in the tree where the bullet had chewed off a limb and stripped away some of the bark.
Preacher dove to the ground, burrowed into the snow, and turned to look in the direction from which the shot had come. Just below a snow-bearing pine bough, he saw a puff of smoke hanging in the cold, still air. This was where the shot had come from.
Wriggling through the snow on his belly, Preacher returned to his kit. Grabbing his rifle, he rolled onto his back and began loading it. He poured powder into the barrel, then used his ramrod to tamp the wad down. All the while he was loading his rifle, he kept his eyes toward the tree line from which the shot had come. He knew that whoever shot at him would also be reloading, and his assailant had a head start.
Just as Preacher was dropping in the ball, he saw a rifle barrel protrude from the trees, not where the smoke of the first shot was, but from some distance away. His assailant had cleverly changed positions after the first shot.
Preacher rolled hard to the right, just as a flash of fire erupted from the end of the protruding rifle barrel. The ball crashed into the snow where Preacher had been.
"Now, you son of a bitch! You're empty and I'm loaded," Preacher said. Standing, he moved quickly toward the puff of smoke.
But Preacher had miscalculated, because another barrel suddenly appeared, not a rifle, but a pistol. Preacher realized, too late, that his assailant had loaded his pistol as well and was holding it in reserve.
Excerpted from THE FIRST MOUNTAIN MAN: PREACHER'S JUSTICE by WILLIAM W. JOHNSTONE Copyright © 2007 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission.
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