There's a limit to everything, by dang it, the mountain man known as Preacher fumed to himself. At least that's how he saw it. Birds twittered musically overhead; a fat, white-tailed deer bounded across the meadow in this lush, deep basin. Water burbled, clear and pure, in the narrow stream that cut diagonally through the upper end of the valley and left by way of the entrance gorge to the south. Only marginally on the east side of the continental divide, water courses often did not follow the rule of the land. Tangy pine scented the clear, crisp air, while small puff-ball clouds floated by overhead.
So, why in tarnation would a body come along and spoil a perfectly relaxful fall? Yet, here they were, five of the most vile, stomach-churning, unwashed, buzzard pukes Preacher had ever laid eyes upon. Worse, they looked to be fixin' to ruin his peaceful layin' up for winter by settling down in the selfsame valley he had staked out for its high mountain walls to the north, east, and west. Preacher found himself jealous of sharing the sure, swift stream that ran through the middle, and the ample tall, slender fir trees which abounded on the slopes, from which he could make a stout little cabin and enjoy a source of plentiful wood for heat and cooking. No, it wouldn't do, not at all. But despite that, Preacher decided to drop down and invite these hog-dirty, walking, talking slop jars to depart.
* * *
Preacher meandered down to where the scruffy frontier trash had put up a disreputable lean-to, and hashed together a pine bough lodge which would not shed water or keep out the cold. Stupid flatlanders, no doubt, he reasoned as he neared. Preacher halted a goodly distance from the men, who had to be bone-stupid to have not noted his approach, and hollered up at the camp.
“Hello, the camp!”
“Howdie, mister. Câmon in an' fetch up a cup of coffee.”
“Thank'e. I'll come in right enough.” Preacher came to within three long paces of the rude camp, then screwed a ground anchor and tied his horse to it.
Preacher entered the camp, his posture one of complete dominance. This was his valley, by damn. One of the unshaven quintet studied their visitor with open curiosity. Only a bit over what passed for average height in these days, the man had an air of power about him. From his broad shoulders and thick chest to his narrow waist, he radiated strength. The man Preacher viewed as an intruder raised a hand in a greeting. “Rest yourself, stranger. There's coffee over yon.”
“I'll not be stayin' for coffee, thank you all the same. M'name's Preacher.” He noted how their eyes widened at this news. “I come to offer you an invitation.”
“That's mighty nice. What's the invite for?”
“I'm askin' you fellers to pack up your gear and be outta my valley before sundown.” His gray eyes, they noted, were cold and hard.
Surprised looks came from the five men. Lomax and Phelps grew angry at once. Windy Creek produced a snarl that came off more like a sneer, while Rush and Thumper separated from the others slightly, to get an advantage. Preacher noted all of that and accepted the fact that his invitation could be a bit more difficult to deliver than he had anticipated. They showed other obvious signs of how unkindly they took his words.
“Lomax, Windy,” barked the only one who had spoken so far. “Looks to me we have to learn this boy some manners.”
“You got that right, Phelps,” Rusk growled from nearly behind Preacher.
From a similar position at Preacher's left rear, Thumper uttered the wheezing gasp that served him for laughter. “This is gonna be easy, Rusk. All we gotta do is jump on him and hol' him down while Phelps and Lomax work him over a bit.”
A low chuckle came from the one Preacher identified as Windy. “Then we take him off with us like we was told. Heâheâheee.” The sound of his laughter came out even worse than that of Thumper. Preacher raised his big hands, palms up and open. He took a deep breath and sighed aloud as he spoke.
“Well, hell, fellers, if you're set on joinin' the dance, I suppose I have to accommodate.”
While they took time to digest the meaning of Preacher's fancy words, he exploded into instant, furious action. He whipped out with one big hand and popped Lomax along the jaw. The contact sounded like a rifle shot. Preacher kept his momentum and spun to snap a hard right fist into the bony chest of Windy Creek. The skinny border rat grunted, and his eyes crossed momentarily.
Preacher followed up with a left to Windy's unguarded cheek. Blood sprayed at the contact. A right cross produced a screeching sound from Windy's mouth that set Preacher's teeth on edge. The spry, if momentarily befuddled, Windy began to spit out teeth as he danced backward. Rusk and Thumper grabbed Preacher from behind the next instant. Preacher raised a heel into Thumper's crotch and got a satisfying squeal of pain in return. Then the punches began to smack into Preacher's middle and face.
Phelps and Lomax closed in, working with the efficiency of steam engines. Lomax, an ugly brute of short stature, pistoned his arms forward and back, pounding Preacher in the belly with hard-knuckled regularity. Phelps, tall and skinny, worked over his crime partner's head, driving cutting, jarring lefts and rights to the planes of Preacher's face. Blood began to flow from a cut high on one cheekbone. A ringing filled Preacher's head as Phelps lopped him one in an ear. Pain exploded in his left eye, and the tissue began to swell immediately. He'd have a good mouse out of that one, Preacher reckoned.
He chose to ignore the efforts of Lomax. The short, pudgy hard case furiously drove his fists into slabs of work-hardened muscle to no effect, save to sap his own energy. Lomax tagged Preacher on the point of his chin, and stars blazed behind the mountain man's eyes. Preacher sucked in a deep breath and shifted position.
“Well, hell,” he drawled, “that's about enough of this.”
Preacher stomped a high instep on a foot that belonged to Rusk, yanked himself free, and boxed the ears off Lomax. Howling, the squat piece of human debris clapped hands to both ears and spun away from Preacher, to receive a solid kick in the rear as further reward. Eyes widening, Phelps took a step backward and tripped over a snub piece of granite protruding from the grassy turf. He caught a solid punch under the heart that knocked the air from his lungs and momentarily froze his diaphragm. He hit the ground seeing stars and listening to the birdies sing.
Ignoring that pair, Preacher turned his attention toward the remaining three. Rusk, Thumper and Windy Creek stared in confused disbelief. No one man had ever stood up to them like this. Not even just two alone. They had not been told something about this Preacher, the trio immediately suspected. Most of all, how goddamned mean he could be. Rusk, Thumper and Windy Creek exchanged worried glances. Windy was known as a champion free-for-all wrestler. It seemed his responsibility to take care of Preacher. The expressions of the other two said as much.
Windy shrugged his shoulders until they hunched to protect his neck, snuffled, and shifted his feet on the ground. When his partners in crime feinted to distract Preacher, he jumped forward, spread his arms and sought to clasp the wiry mountain man in a ferocious bear hug. Only Preacher was not there.
“Huh?” Windy grunted, then let out a howl as pain exploded in the side of his head.
How had Preacher gotten over there without him seeing it? Windy turned to face the threat, feeling ready now. No time for finesse, he reckoned. He'd just plow right in and throw his man with one massive twist of his shoulders. Or would he get clobbered in the head again?
Much to his surprise, Windy got a good hold on Preacher. He put the point of his shoulder in deep against Preacher's ribs and set his powerful, tree-stump legs. Arms locked at the wrist, he heaved and felt the sudden give as Preacher left the ground. Elation filled Windy as he slammed his opponent down hard on the ground.
Preacher grunted, shook his head and let his mind absorb the pain that radiated from his ribs. It took him only a moment to realize that his assailant lacked the polish and skill of a true grappler. The ancient Greek art of wrestling was better understood by the Cheyenne and the Sioux than by most white men. That gave Preacher a decided advantage as he saw it. He had learned his wrestling from the Cheyenne. While Windy scrabbled to find new purchase, Preacher drew his legs up in front of him.
When his knees reached the middle of his chest, he had Windy humped up like a bison bull mounting a heifer. The illusion lasted only a second, as Preacher put all his effort into violently thrusting his legs outward. A moment's resistance, and then Windy went flying.
Preacher bounded to his feet in time to meet Rusk and Thumper. Rusk caught the brunt of Preacher's fury. Hard fists pounded his chest and gut until Rusk dropped his guard; then Preacher went to work on the youthful, if dirty, face of the junior thug. Rusk's grunts and groans changed to yips of pain. Preacher spread the nose all over Rusk's face a second before Thumper grabbed him.
Thumper had only begun to pull Preacher around when he got hit low and painfully, an inch above his wide trouser belt. The power in Preacher's punch lifted Thumper off the ground. Before he even had time to wonder where the blow had come from, Preacher sent him into a hazy twilight land. The big, thick-legged mountain man spun around to see what opposition remained.
In that instant, he discovered that the fight had turned serious. Off to one side, Windy Creek held a .70 caliber horse pistol. To Preacher's front, Lomax stood hunched over, breathing hard, and he had a knife out, held low, the edge up in a ripping position. From behind Preacher, Rusk, coughing and retching, pulled a short, ground-down sword. That made the day look a little darker, Preacher reasoned.
“We ... gonna ... fix ya ... for this, ya ... bastid. You boys,” a panting Phelps grunted, “throw down on him. We'll ... hold him ... while Lomax ... carves out his liver.” Then he, too, drew a big .70 caliber horse pistol.
Faced with this opposition, Preacher did a quick reappraisal. Confronting the .70 caliber muzzles, and wickedly sharp edges, he found their attitude decidedly hostile. Cranky enough, he reckoned, that he'd best do something about it. He twisted his face into a semblance of amiability and raised a distracting left hand.
“Well, heck, fellers, why'in't you tell me this was supposed to be a gunfight?” With that he dropped his other hand to the smooth walnut butt-grips of one of his marvelous .44 Walker Colt six-shooters and whipped it out with a suddenness that left the others still thinking about what they should do next.
With cold precision, he blasted two of the woolly-eared men into the arms of their Maker. His first two slugs punched into Phelps's chest. He rocked back and sat abruptly on his skinny butt. Preacher ducked and spun, to send two more rounds into the surprised face of Windy Creek. Belatedly, Windy's .70 caliber horse pistol discharged into the ground with a solid thud. Preacher ignored it to turn and menace the remaining simpleton trash.
Rusk and Thumper fired as one. A fat ball moaned past Preacher's ear, low enough to the shoulder that he could feel its wind. He gave the shooter, Thumper, a .44 slug in the hollow of his throat. It landed the thug backward in a heap beside the dying Phelps. Rusk's eyes went wide. He had fired his only barrel and had no time to reload. He gained precious seconds, in which to go for a second pistol in his belt, when Lomax charged with a bellow, his knife at the ready.
“Some of us just never get the word,” Preacher said with tired sadness as he shot Lomax squarely in the chest. “A feller never takes only a knife to a gunfight,” he explained to the dying man at his feet. Then Rusk fired again.
His bullet cut a thin line along the outside of Preacher's left shoulder. With an empty six-gun in his hand, Preacher dived and rolled for cover behind a fallen tree trunk while he drew a second magnificent .44 Walker Colt, which he had taken off the outlaw named Hashknife a couple of years earlier, and answered Rusk with fatal authority.
Rusk dropped his suddenly heavy pistol and staggered backward. Preacher took the precaution of cocking the Colt again. Then he looked around himself. None of the enemy moved, except the gut-shot Rusk, who moaned and curled up on himself, his legs trembling feebly. Preacher crossed to him. He knelt beside the dirty-faced low-life and spoke with urgency in his voice.
“What brought all that on?”
“Come to get ... you, Preacher,” Rusk panted.
“Why? What got into your heads to do a fool thing like that?”
“We ...” The dying man's voice took on a cold, haunting note as he gasped out his last words.
“We was sent.”
For a short while convulsions wracked the body; then Rusk went stiff, his death rattle sounded and he relaxed into the hands of the Grim Reaper.
Preacher rose slowly, his mind awhirl with puzzlement.
“âWe was sent,'
”he repeated. “Now who in tarnation would have a mad-on at me big enough to send five worthless trash bags like that to even a score?” He let the question hang in the warm, late-August air while he went about rounding up the tools needed for grave digging.
* * *
No stranger to the process of burial for his fellow man, Preacher much preferred that the task be left to others. For his own part, when he ever gave it thought, Preacher much preferred a Cheyenne or Sioux burial platform when it came time to give up the ghost. Let them deck him out in his finest, lay him on a bed of sweet pine boughs, on a platform made of lodgepole pine saplings and rawhide strips, exposing him before God and man, to let the elements do their best with him.
Preacher had neither wife nor, as far as he knew, living child to mourn him, or to quarrel over any possessions he might leave behindâalthough he wasn't real certain about the children bit. That's what Preacher hated most about the white man's way of caring for the dead. If a feller had anything to amount to a hill of beans, and had so-called loved ones left behind, getting possession of that hill of beans always made enemies of those who professed to most love the departed. Instead of supporting each other in their mutual loss, they quarreled like greedy children to divide even the clothes the poor feller left behind.