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Preacher felt like he was coming home, and that was the simple, God's honest truth of it.
Rugged, snowcapped mountains loomed all around the valley, starkly beautiful against the deep blue vault of sky. The snow on the peaks was a reminder that although the weather down in the valley was warm and sunny on this late spring day, winter was never very far off in this mountainous region.
Tendrils of gray smoke from dozens of campfires rose into the air above the valley. Tents and tepees dotted the valley floor on both sides of the little stream that meandered through it. A couple of hundred people were crowded into the encampment, mostly bearded, buckskin-clad men, although quite a few Indian women in beaded buckskin dresses were in evidence, too, most of them stirring the contents of iron pots that simmered over the flames of the campfires. The men stood and talked and smoked their pipes or played cards or passed around jugs. They argued with therepresentatives of the fur trading companies who had come out here to bargain for their loads of pelts. A few wrestled or competed at throwing knives and tomahawks.
A grin creased Preacher's lean, weathered face as he looked down the hill at all the goings-on. There was only one word to describe these festivities.
Twice each year, at the end of the spring trapping season and also at the end of the fall season, the mountain men who had come here to the Rockies to harvest beaver pelts gathered together to sell the results of their labor to the agents of the fur companies. However, Rendezvous was a lot more than just business. It was also the most important social occasion-often the only social occasion-each spring and fall. Friends who hadn't seen each other for months slapped each other on the back and called each other obscene names and roared with laughter. Fiddles scraped and mouth harps wailed and the valley fairly shook from the stomping feet of the mountain men as they danced and capered. The party lasted for three days and nights, and when it was over the buckskinners, most of whom led solitary lives the rest of the year, went their separate ways, hungover, sore from laughing and fighting, back to their lonely existence until the time came for them to head once again for the Rendezvous.
Preacher knew that sometimes the men who lived in these mountains went crazy from the solitude. A lot more probably would have lost their minds if it hadn't been for the Rendezvous twice a year.
With the grace of a natural-born horseman, Preacher rode a rangy, ugly mount known as Horse. At his side padded along a big wolflike cur called Dog. Like Preacher, the animals were starting to get some age on them. Not that any of them were actually old, far from it. Preacher, who had been born as the eighteenth century slipped into the nineteenth, hadn't seen thirty-five winters yet. But the rugged life he'd led had put a few silver strands in the thick black hair under the floppy-brimmed hat he wore. The mustache that hung over his mouth and the beard stubble on his lean cheeks were dotted with silver as well.
He led a packhorse that carried the pelts he had taken. This time he had fewer than usual because he hadn't been able to spend a full spring season in the mountains. After wintering in Texas, he had been on his way back to the high country when he'd gotten delayed by some trouble in the Sangre de Cristos, down New Mexico way. He wasn't particularly worried, though. A man who could live off the land like Preacher could didn't need a lot of money.
A frown creased Preacher's forehead as he noticed a large, striped tent near the river. Mountain men usually didn't go in for anything that fancy. The tent probably belonged to some of the fur company representatives, Preacher decided.
As he reached the bottom of the slope and started across the valley floor toward the encampment, several dogs noticed him coming and bounded toward him, barking. The big cur beside him growled low in his throat, and Preacher said, "Behave yourself, Dog. I don't want to have to be pullin' you out of a ruckus ever' time I turn around."
Dog just looked up at him.
"I know, I know," Preacher said tolerantly. "You're bigger and tougher'n those other dogs. But you know that and I know that, and I reckon that's all that matters."
With dignity and only the occasional growl, Dog padded on, ignoring the canine commotion that went on around him.
Some of the men attending the Rendezvous noticed Preacher's impending arrival, too, and they stopped what they were doing to stride out a short distance from the edge of the encampment and wait for him, long-barreled Kentucky rifles cradled in the crooks of their elbows. Preacher lifted a hand in greeting as he approached them.
"As I live and breathe," one of the buckskin-clad men called, "if it ain't Preacher." He nudged the man next to him with an elbow. "See, I told you I smelled somethin'. Smelled like rotted bear grease, so I knew it had to be Preacher."
"Rather smell like rotted bear grease than a three-hole privy like you, Stump," Preacher said.
The grin disappeared from the man's face and was replaced by a scowl. "Damn it, Preacher, you know I don't like bein' called that." The nickname had come about not because the trapper had lost an arm or a leg or because he was short-although he was-but rather because nature had been less than generous to him when it came to his masculine endowment. Quite a bit less than generous, in fact.
"Yeah, you're right," Preacher said as he reined Horse to a halt and the packhorse stopped, too. He held up a hand with the thumb and forefinger only a couple of inches apart and went on, "It ain't really your fault that you only got-"
Another man had walked up behind the ones who had come out to meet Preacher, and now shouldered through their ranks. That wasn't much of a chore because he was taller and heavier and had broader shoulders than any of them except for Preacher himself.
"Preacher!" the newcomer bellowed. "Nobody's killed you yet? I'm plumb amazed!"
Grinning, Preacher swung down from the saddle and stepped forward to shake hands with the man. "Howdy, Rip," he said. "Good to see you again."
"Good to see you, too, you old scalawag." The man pulled Preacher closer and pounded him on the back before retreating a step.
Rip Giddens was a little younger than Preacher, with shaggy blond hair that hung around his shoulders and a beard of the same shade. He and Preacher had been friends for several years, although the only place they ever saw each other was at these Rendezvous.
Looking past Preacher at the packhorse, Rip commented, "Doesn't appear that you had a very good spring."
Preacher grimaced. "I only got up here in time to trap for a few weeks. I spent the winter in Texas, and when I started back I had to stop for a spell in New Mexico."
"What for?" Rip asked bluntly.
Preacher shrugged. "Helped out a few folks, and shot some others."
"Damned if that ain't just like you."
"Hey, I was talkin' to Preacher!" the trapper called Stump interrupted. He crowded forward, his rifle clutched in both hands now.
Rip turned and said, "Sorry, Stump," ignoring the baleful look the smaller man gave him. He waved a hand at Preacher. "You go right ahead."
Stump glared. "Well, I was just sayin' that, uh, you shouldn't make fun of a fella because of his, uh, shortcomin's that he don't have no control over-"
He had to stop because all the other trappers were laughing now, not just Preacher and Rip. Looking mad and frustrated, Stump fumed and muttered under his breath as he stomped off.
Rip put a hand on Preacher's shoulder. "Come on," he said. "I want you to meet the folks I'm workin' for."
"Workin' for?" Preacher repeated as he fell in step with Rip and led the two horses across the encampment. "Ain't you trappin' this year?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. Got a good load o' plews durin' the spring, in fact. But I've got another job comin' up for the summer, guidin' some pilgrims-"
Preacher didn't know where Rip intended to guide those mysterious pilgrims, and didn't get a chance to find out right then, because a frightened scream rang out from not too far away.
A woman's scream.
"Damn it!" Rip said. "That sounds like Miss Faith!"
He broke into a run, and Preacher saw that Rip was heading for that fancy striped tent he had noticed earlier.
Preacher followed at a more deliberate pace, not running because he was still leading the two horses, but not wasting any time, either. As he approached the tent, he saw a knot of people in front of the canvas flaps that formed its entrance. Two knots of people, rather, with Rip Giddens between them, evidently trying to keep them apart.
One group, the bunch that Rip faced angrily, was made up of men in buckskins and coonskin caps and floppy-brimmed hats. They were trappers, and Preacher recognized most of them. He wasn't particularly fond of them, either, especially the man who appeared to be their leader. His name was Luther Snell, and Preacher had had a few run-ins with him before. Once he had even suspected Snell of raiding his traps, but he'd never been able to catch the man at it.
The half-dozen or so men with Snell were the same sort, no more honest than they had to be and given to brutality.
It was the group of people clustered behind Rip that drew most of Preacher's attention, though. He knew immediately that they must be those pilgrims Rip had mentioned.
There were four of them, and one of them was a woman-a white woman, maybe the only one in more than a hundred miles. She was tall and on the slender side, with a thick mass of auburn curls that tumbled around her shoulders. Her eyes were a vivid, almost startling shade of green. Standing next to her with an arm protectively around her was a slight, sandy-haired man who was several inches shorter than her. On the woman's other side stood a handsome, dark-haired man in his thirties, and behind that trio was a taller man with brown hair. He looked to be the most physically fit of the group, but the spectacles that perched on his nose gave him a bookish look, and he seemed to be the one of the four who was the most nervous.
Preacher's keen eyes took in the whole scene and the players involved at a glance. Rip was saying, "Look, Luther, there ain't no call for trouble. I'm sure that Miss Faith didn't mean to offend you-"
"She called me an uncouth lout!" Luther Snell interrupted angrily. "I ain't exactly sure what that is, but it can't be nothin' good!"
"Perhaps I should have added uneducated as well," the woman said with a defiant look on her pretty face, and Preacher winced a little. Clearly, she wasn't going to go out of her way to ease the tension here.
"If you mean I ain't had no schoolin', that ain't true," Snell shot back. "I went to school for a whole year. I can read a little and cipher some."
"Oh, well, then, you're ready to apply for admission to Oxford."
The man with his arm around her said, "Faith, dear, you're not really helping matters-"
"Oh, hush," the woman snapped at him. "If you were any sort of a decent brother, Willard, you would have stood up to this bully when he first accosted me." She glared at the other two men in their party. "And the same is true for the pair of you. My God, you must have some backbone, if you're brave enough to come out here to this filthy wilderness in the first place."
"I didn't have that much choice," the smaller dark-haired man said. "The newspaper for which I work insisted that I come along with your brother's expedition, Miss Carling. A journalist goes where he's told to go, you know."
Faith Carling looked at the third man, who refused to meet her accusatory gaze. Despite his muscular build, he was obviously a peace-loving sort.
That wasn't exactly the same thing as being a coward, Preacher thought-but it wasn't far from it, either.
"Look," Snell said, "I didn't do anything to get the gal upset. I just asked her if she'd be willin' to write one of her pomes about me."
"Poems," Faith said distinctly and scornfully. "I write poems, not pomes. And as an artist, I can't be commanded what to write. I have to follow the urgings of my muse."
One of the other trappers said, "I thought the little prissy fella was the artist."
"My brother Willard is a painter," Faith replied. "He captures the beauties of nature in oils, while I use words. But both of us are artists." She looked at Luther Snell. "And you, sir, are not one of the beauties of nature."
"That does it!" The burly, black-bearded Snell drew back a fist. "Sorry, Giddens. Since I can't wallop no female, looks like I got to beat the hell outta you!"
Snell and his friends hadn't noticed Preacher coming up behind them. At the sound of Preacher's voice, Snell's head snapped around. "Preacher!" he said in surprise. "I didn't know you'd got here to the Rendezvous yet."
"Just rode in a few minutes ago," Preacher said mildly. "And I'd take it kindly if you'd stop threatenin' my friend Rip, Snell."
Reluctantly, the angry trapper lowered his arm, but he didn't unclench his fist. "This ain't any o' your business, Preacher. I know you like to meddle in other folks' affairs, but this is one time when maybe you ought to back up."
"Funny thing about that," Preacher said as he dropped the reins he had been holding. The horses weren't going to wander off. As Preacher stepped forward, he continued. "When the Good Lord made me, He clean forgot to put much back-up in me."
"Now look here," Snell began to bluster.
"No, you look," Preacher said, and his tone was cold and angry now. "You and your pards just leave these folks alone and move on. There's been hard feelin's but never any real trouble between us, Snell. Let's keep it that way."
Snell looked like he wanted to continue the argument, but one of his companions said, "Come on, Luther. We never figured on Preacher bein' mixed up in this. You know what a lobo wolf he is."
"Yeah, well, I can be a wolf, too," Snell said obstinately. But the look of wanting to fight had gone out of his small, piggish eyes, and Preacher knew Snell was going to back down. He wouldn't like it, but he'd do it.
Snell couldn't leave without getting in a parting shot, though. He sneered at Rip and said, "If I was you, Giddens, I'd be ashamed about havin' to get Preacher to fight my battles for me."
With that he turned and stalked away, followed by his friends, before Rip could make any sort of reply.
Rip didn't look happy, though, and Preacher wondered suddenly if he should have stayed out of the confrontation. Ignoring trouble wasn't the sort of thing he was good at, though, especially when the fella threatening to raise a ruckus was a no-account bastard like Luther Snell.
"I appreciate the help, Preacher," Rip said tightly, "but you didn't have to do that. I ain't scared of Snell."
"Nobody said you were," Preacher pointed out. "But him and me don't like each other, and it goes back a while. Still, I didn't mean to mix in where I hadn't ought to."
The woman took a step toward him. "On the contrary, sir, your participation in this contretemps was quite welcome. Men such as that have no concept of fair play. I'd wager that they would have ganged up on poor Mr. Giddens and given him the thrashing of his life had you not intervened."
Excerpted from The First Mountain Man PREACHER'S QUEST by William W. Johnstone J.A. Johnstone Copyright © 2007 by William W. Johnstone . Excerpted by permission.
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Posted March 29, 2009
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