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The First Mountain Man
By William W. Johnstone
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1991 William W. Johnstone
All rights reserved.
"When you call me that, smile!"
He was on the east side of the Absaroka Range, in the timber, heading down toward the Popo Agie. He was in no hurry, and there was no real reason for him to go there. He just had him a hankering, call it. He felt he might run into some old friends around there who, like the lone rider, had felt the calling for companionship.
He hadn't been down there in some time, not since the last rendezvous back in '30, he thought it was. He was pretty sure it was the year of our Lord 1837. Had to be close to that, anyway. If the year was as he figured, he was about thirty-five years old, near as he could figure. And he'd never felt better in his life.
The rider was of average height for his time, lean-hipped and rawhide tough, with tremendous power in his upper body. What women he'd run into over he last seventeen or eighteen or so years in the mountains considered him handsome. He tried to recall the last time he'd seen a white woman. Two, three years at least.
Just thinking about the rendezvous got him all lost in memories — but not so lost that he forgot where he was and to keep a sharp eye out for Injuns. He rode with his Hawken rifle across the saddle horn and had another one shoved into a saddle boot. He carried two .50 caliber pistols behind his waist sash and two more hung in leather on the saddle horn, one on each side. He'd always boasted that he was a peaceful man, but Injuns is notional folks. You never really know how to take them. A man can nearabout always ride into an Injun camp and they'll feed you and bed you down for the night. They'll usually treat a body right well. 'Course, depending on the tribe and the general mood of the day, the rub comes when you try to leave the next morning. They might decide to have some fun and skin you alive. He had seen what was left of a man after that. It was a disheartening sight, to say the least. He didn't expect the other feller cared much for it either.
The lone rider rode easy, ruminating on this and that. He'd seen a white man up the trail about five months back, when the snow was thick, and he'd told him it was Christmas. That had got him to feeling all maudlin and the like, thinking about folks and family he hadn't seen in years and would probably never see again on this side of the grave.
Time gets confusing up in the High Lonesome. The months and years just blend together and don't take on a whole hell of a lot of importance.
He reined up at a creek and swung down from the saddle, getting the kinks out of his muscles and bones and giving his horses a chance to drink and blow. He rode a mountain horse he'd caught and gentle-broke. Called him Hammer for no particular reason. Hammer was a gray, tough as a mountain goat and stood eighteen hands high. His good pack horse was also a gray, just as tough as Hammer and just as smart: he wouldn't tote no more than he felt he could comfortably carry. Overload him and he just wouldn't move. Stand there and look at you with them eyes telling you to get that crap off his back. Smart.
The rider looked all around him careful, then stood still and sniffed the air. He could detect nothing in the cool mountain air except the scent of nature's own growth in springtime. There was no Injun smell. After so many years in the mountains, he had learned that all men have a distinctive scent that can be picked up by others if you just teach your blower to do it.
He stretched out on his belly by the creek and took him a long drink of cold clean water. He thought about taking off his moccasins and sticking his bare feet in the crick and splashing around some, like a kid, but some poor critter downstream that wasn't hurtin' nobody and who just come out of the woods for a cool drink would be sick for a week.
He did take off his moccasins and rub his feet, though. Felt good.
He rubbed his feet dry on the grass and slipped back into his moccasins. He chewed on a piece of jerky and wished long for some coffee, but he'd been out of coffee for weeks. That was another reason for this trip. He had to resupply with salt and beans and coffee and the like. He also had to get him a new pair of longhandle underwear. His was plumb wore out. And his buckskins were thin.
He was known from the Northwest to the deserts of the Southwest as Preacher.
He was far from being a man of the cloth — about as far as a man could get, even though he'd been raised in the church as a boy. When he was new and green to the High Lonesome, Injuns had grabbed him and was planning on slow-roasting him to see how well he stood pain. If he stood it well, they would praise him and sing songs about him. 'Course, those songs would be sort of hard to appreciate from the grave. So he started preaching. He preached all day and all night. The Injuns finally figured he was crazy as a lizard and turned him loose. The nickname stuck.
Preacher had been in the mountains since he was just a boy; he had run away from a good home and reached the mountains a year later. And while he had left the mountains many times to see what was over the next ridge or river, he always returned to the High Lonesome. He had lived with a number of tribes, and gotten along with many of them. He'd had him a squaw from time to time, and a few offspring.
But unlike many of his counterparts, Preacher could see the writing on the wall, so to speak, even though he might have some difficulty reading actual words. The beaver market was glutted. Man was hard-pressed to make a living anymore, and it was only going to get worse. He knew that while most of the other mountain men did not, or would not accept it.
Preacher could do a lot of things besides trapping. He could pan for gold, he could scout for the Army or for wagon trains, he even knew a little about farming — although he kept that to himself.
He cut his eyes to Hammer as the horse raised his head and pricked his ears up. He was over to him in a heartbeat, stroking his neck and talking to him low, so he wouldn't whinny and give away their position. He spoke to the pack horse and rubbed his neck. They stood quiet, but they weren't liking what they smelled one damn bit.
Then Preacher smelled what the horses had smelled, and he heard them coming. Injuns, and their scent was strong. With it came the scent of blood. Fresh blood.
He picketed both horses on graze and pulled the pistols from the saddle horn. He slipped to the top of a rise and peeked through the brush. What he saw below didn't set well at all. Five young bucks and they had prisoners. The Injuns looked to be Arapaho, and Preacher never had got on too well with that tribe. They just didn't much like the white man. Preacher lay still, moving only his eyes, carefully checking everything out. But it appeared five was all there was. But five bucks on the warpath was plenty. He could see fresh scalps on the manes of their horses and on their war lances. And they weren't Injun scalps.
The bucks had two white women and two white men, and from the looks on their faces, they were all plenty scared. And they had a right to be.
A lot of wagon trains were pushing west, to Oregon or California. Wagons had been rolling to Oregon for several years. Nat Wyeth, Preacher thought it was, took the first emigrants over the Oregon Trail back in '31 or '32. Been a lot of them since then, and a lot of them hadn't made it.
Preacher had him a thought that those poor, scared pilgrims was part, or had been part, of a small wagon train that just ran out of luck.
"The Lord will see us through, brother and sisters," a man said. "Put your faith in the Lord."
Missionaries, Preacher thought. Come to the wilderness to bring Jesus to the savages. Damn fools bringing womenfolk out here to preach with them. Injuns don't think like white people. It's not that the whites is right and the Injuns is wrong, it's just that they're two very different ways of life. Whites and Injuns don't think alike. Injuns don't steal 'cause they're bad people. It's more of a game to them, and right and wrong doesn't enter into it. Courage and dying well and bravery mean a great deal to Injuns. They can't none of them abide a coward.
Preacher had tried to tell a few missionaries that the Injuns didn't need or want their religion; they had a religion all their own and the practiced it and lived by it. But you'd have better luck trying to tell a lawyer to shut up than you would with a Bible-thumper.
Preacher watched as one young buck pulled at himself and grinned at the others. He knew then that one of the young women — and they were both lookers — was fixin' to get hopped on right then and there in front of God and everybody else.
Then the buck said as much. Preacher spoke some Arapaho, and heard him tell the woman what he was gonna do. She looked up at him from the log where they'd plopped her, confusion and fear on her face. Then that buck just reached down and run his hand up under her dress. That woman squalled something fierce.
"Here now!" a man blustered up. "You stop that barbaric behavior, you hear me?"
The woman's hands was tied behind her back, but her feet were free. She kicked that buck right between his legs and he went down howling and puking, both hands holding onto his privates.
Preacher winced and he was thirty feet away.
Preacher knew if he was to do anything, it had to be now. He eased the hammers back on his old .50 caliber pistols and laid them on the ground. He took the second brace — hoping the powder was dry on them all — and eased the hammers back on them. Another buck jerked out a knife and whacked an ear off one of the men prisoners. The man screamed and the blood poured. The buck then proceeded to make it clear to the lady — using sign language that an idiot could understand — that if she didn't hike up her skirts and do it real quick, he was gonna cut something else off the man, and it was located a mite lower than his remaining ear.
"Melody!" the man with one ear hollered.
Preacher figured he got the message, too.
The buck she'd kicked in the privates was still on the ground, rolling and moaning and being sick all over the place. She had really put her little foot in him.
There wasn't any other option left Preacher. He lifted his pistols with the double-set triggers and let 'em bang. He had double-shotted these and the first ball hit the buck with the knife in the chest; the second ball hit him in the belly. Both balls from the second pistol hit a brave smack in the face. He was a real mess when he hit the ground.
Preacher grabbed the second brace of pistols and let the lead fly. He couldn't hardly see a thing for the gun smoke but knew he had put four Injuns on the ground and the other one was just getting to his moccasins, still bent over in pain. Preacher jerked his long-bladed knife from its sheath and ran down the short slope toward the scared pilgrims.
He ran right over that skinny Injun with the bruised privates and knocked him sprawling back to the ground. He jumped up, a war axe in his hand, and he was some mad. Preacher told him in his own language what he thought of him, his family, and his horse. The buck screamed and charged. Preacher ducked and cut him from brisket to backbone. That blade was honed to a fine edge and went in easy. The skinny Injun was out of it. Preacher ran back to his guns and loaded up again as fast as he could.
The women were in a shocked silence. The man with one ear looked at Preacher like he was some sort of devil. And, Preacher thought, maybe he did look like one. He hadn't shaved in a month or so and his clothes were made from what he could kill and skin and cure. His hat was so old and floppy it had no shape. Preacher reckoned he did look like a wild man to these city folks.
"Praise be!" Melody found her voice. "The Lord has sent us a warrior!"
"He ain't done no such of a thing," Preacher told her, while cutting her bonds loose. "I just happened to be close by. Now get them others untied and let's get the hell gone from here 'fore more Injuns show up."
The second man put his mouth in motion and stuck his two pennies worth in. "We're all Christians, brother. And we don't hold with strong language in front of ladies."
Preacher spat on the ground. "That's your damn problem. I don't hold with fools comin' into the mountains and stirrin' up the Injuns. So I reckon that makes us even." Preacher cut the others loose.
He helped Melody to her feet and she swayed against him for a moment. She was all woman, that one. And when their eyes met, Preacher could see that she knew he was all man. A high flush came to her cheeks and her smile was tight and her eyes bright, like with a fever. They had a fever all right, but it wasn't brought on by sickness. Preacher released her hand and she stepped away, each knowing what the other was thinking, and Jehovah didn't have a damn thing to do with it.
"You don't have to worry about the other savages," the man with one ear and bloody face said.
Preacher knew then he was dealing with a real pilgrim. In the mountains, a man always worries about Injuns.
Preacher grunted in reply.
"You see," one-ear said, pulling a fancy handkerchief out of a jacket pocket and pressing it to the side of his head. "The other savages fled in a different direction after the attack."
"They didn't flee nowheres," Preacher told him. "They own these mountains; they got no reason to be afraid. All they did was split up to divvy up the booty. But how do you know they didn't plan on meetin' up agin, right here?"
That shut one-ear right up.
"We must get Richard to a doctor," the haughty-acting fellow said.
Preacher laughed at him. "Shore. They's one about two hundred and fifty miles from here. Won't take us more'n a month to get there. What we'll do is get gone from here and then I'll take a look at your partner's head. Clean it out good. I'd pour whiskey on it but I ain't got none."
"You probably drank it all, lurching about in some drunken debauchery," the second female spoke up. She had her color up and was climbing up on her soapbox. "Cavorting about with a loose woman, more than likely a pure, simple, ignorant savage you took advantage of."
"Amen," the mouthy man said. "It's not only the savages to whom we must introduce God."
Preacher chuckled and shook his head. "For shore I drank the whiskey. As to the second part, no. Let's go. When we make camp I'll fix up a poultice for one-ear there. You ain't hurt bad, mister. But you're gonna be tiltin' your hat to the other side of your head for the rest of your life. Now, all of you, move, goddammit!"CHAPTER 2
They were in trouble and Preacher knew that for a hard fact. The Arapaho bucks back yonder had been wearing read streaks on their faces. To an Arapaho, the color red could mean three things: earth, man, or blood. In this case, Preacher pretty well knew it meant blood, and they weren't in the best of positions, either. They were caught with the Shoshoni just to the west of them, the Blackfoot to the north, the Crow to the east, and the Arapaho and the Cheyenne to the south and everywhere in the immediate surroundings.
All in all, it was not a good place to be. Preacher, traveling alone, never gave it much worrying time. He knew how to stay alive in hostile country. But with four pilgrims — that was quite another matter.
And two of them females, no less. That only added to the problem.
"Git up on them horses," Preacher told them.
"We don't have the proper saddles for the ladies," the mouthy man said. "And by the way, my name is Edmond. You know Melody and Richard. This is Penelope."
"Well, I am just thrilled beyond words. Now, get up on them damn horses!"
With a snort of disgust, Preacher climbed up the gently sloping bank, slid down the other side, and fetched his own animals, leading them around to the others. They still hadn't made a move toward the ponies.
He swung into the saddle and led an Indian pony over to the group. He looked at Melody. "Mount up, sister. I'll get you outta here. Move, woman!"
Melody didn't hesitate. She stepped up on a log, hiked up her skirts, and swung onto the horse's back. Preacher handed her the reins. "Let's go."
"What about us?" Penelope shrieked.
"Keep your voice down, woman!" Preacher said. "You'd but a hog-caller to shame. If you wanna come with us, put your butt on that pony's back and come on."
"Barbarous cretin!" Edmond said. "Youd leave us, wouldn't you?"
"You see my back, don't you?" Preacher called over his shoulder. "That tell you anything?"
"Are you really going to leave them?" Melody whispered.
"Naw," Preacher returned the whisper. "But they don't know that."
She grinned at him. Preacher winked at her.
"I'm a worker in the house of the Lord, sir," she reminded him.
Excerpted from The First Mountain Man by William W. Johnstone. Copyright © 1991 William W. Johnstone. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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